ON ANY OTHER DAY, I PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE stopped. Like the majority of people on the busy avenue, I would hardly have noticed him standing there. But the very thing on my mind was the very reason he was there, so I stopped.
I’d just spent a portion of the morning preparing a lesson out of the ninth chapter of John, the chapter that contains the story about the man blind from birth. I’d finished lunch and was returning to my office when I saw him. He was singing. An aluminum cane was in his left hand; his right hand was extended and open, awaiting donations. He was blind.
After walking past him about five steps, I stopped and mumbled something to myself about the epitome of hypocrisy and went back in his direction. I put some change in his hand. “Thank you,” he said and then offered me a common Brazilian salutation, “and may you have health.” Ironic wish.
Once again I started on my way. Once again the morning study of John 9 stopped me. “Jesus saw a man, blind from birth.” I paused and pondered. If Jesus were here he would see this man. I wasn’t sure what that meant. But I was sure I hadn’t done it. So I turned around again.
As if the giving of a donation entitled me to do so, I stopped beside a nearby car and observed. I challenged myself to see him. I would stay here until I saw more than a sightless indigent on a busy thoroughfare in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
I watched him sing. Some beggars grovel in a corner cultivating pity. Others unashamedly lay their children on blankets in the middle of the sidewalk thinking that only the hardest of hearts would ignore a dirty, naked infant asking for bread.
But this man did none of that. He stood. He stood tall. And he sang. Loudly. Even proudly. All of us had more reason to sing than he, but he was the one singing. Mainly, he sang folk songs. Once I thought he was singing a hymn, though I wasn’t sure.
His husky voice was out of place amid the buzz of commerce. Like a small sparrow who found his way into a noisy factory, or a lost fawn on an interstate, his singing conjured an awkward marriage between progress and simplicity.
The passersby had various reactions. Some were curious and gazed unabashedly. Others were uncomfortable. They were quick to duck their heads or walk in a wider circle. “No reminders of harshness today, please.” Most, however, hardly noticed him. Their thoughts were occupied, their agendas were full and he was … well, he was a blind beggar.
I was thankful he couldn’t see the way they looked at him.
After a few minutes I went up to him again. “Have you had any lunch?” I asked. He stopped singing. He turned his head toward the sound of my voice and directed his face somewhere past my ear. His eye sockets were empty. He said he was hungry. I went to a nearby restaurant and bought him a sandwich and something cold to drink.
When I came back he was still singing and his hands were still empty. He was grateful for the food. We sat down on a nearby bench. Between bites he told me about himself. Twenty-eight years old. Single. Lives with his parents and seven brothers. “Were you born blind?”
“No, when I was young I had an accident.” He didn’t volunteer details and I didn’t have the gall to request them.
Though we were almost the same age, we were light years apart. My three decades had been a summer vacation of family excursions, Sunday school, debate teams, football, and a search for the Mighty One. Growing up blind in the Third World surely offered none of these. My daily concern now involved people, thoughts, concepts, and communication. His day was stitched with concerns of survival: coins, handouts, and food. I’d go home to a nice apartment, a hot meal, and a good wife. I hated to think of the home he would encounter. I’d seen enough overcrowded huts on the hills of Rio to make a reasonable guess. And his reception … would there be anyone to make him feel special when he got home?
I came whisker-close to asking him, “Does it make you mad that I’m not you?” “Do you ever lie awake at night wondering why the hand you were dealt was so different from the one given a million or so others born thirty years ago?”
I wore a shirt and tie and some new shoes. His shoes had holes and his coat was oversized and bulky. His pants gaped open from a rip in the knee.
And still he sang. Though a sightless, penniless hobo, he still found a song and sang it courageously. (I wondered which room in his heart that song came from.)
At worst, I figured, he sang from desperation. His song was all he had. Even when no one gave any coins, he still had his song. Yet he seemed too peaceful to be singing out of self-preservation.
Or perhaps he sang from ignorance. Maybe he didn’t know what he never had.
No, I decided the motivation that fit his demeanor was the one you’d least expect. He was singing from contentment. Somehow this eyeless pauper had discovered a candle called satisfaction and it glowed in his dark world. Someone had told him, or maybe he’d told himself, that tomorrow’s joy is fathered by today’s acceptance. Acceptance of what, at least for the moment, you cannot alter.
I looked up at the Niagara of faces that flowed past us. Grim. Professional. Some determined. Some disguised. But none were singing, not even silently. What if each face were a billboard that announced the true state of its owner’s heart? How many would say “Desperate! Business on the rocks!” or “Broken: In Need of Repair,” or “Faithless, Frantic, and Fearful”? Quite a few.
The irony was painfully amusing. This blind man could be the most peaceful fellow on the street. No diploma, no awards, and no future—at least in the aggressive sense of the word. But I wondered how many in that urban stampede would trade their boardrooms and blue suits in a second for a chance to drink at this young man’s well.
“Faith is the bird that sings while it is yet dark.”
Before I helped my friend back to his position on the street, I tried to verbalize my empathy. “Life is hard, isn’t it?” A slight smile. He again turned his face toward the direction of my voice and started to respond, then paused and said, “I’d better get back to work.”
For almost a block, I could hear him singing. And in my mind’s eye I could still see him. But the man I now saw was a different one than the one to whom I’d given a few coins. Though the man I now saw was still sightless, he was remarkably insightful. And though I was the one with eyes, it was he who gave me a new vision.