A few weeks ago in Honolulu, an accomplished, middle-aged woman I met at a cocktail party told me the most tragic love story. In a nutshell, this woman had her heart broken at an East Coast college three decades ago. When she went back home to recover, she met a man on the rebound as a way to assuage her pain, married him, and raised a family. After nearly 30 years of marriage, they divorced two years ago. Not long after, in what appears to be a coincidence, she received an email from the man who broke her heart when she was only 21. Although they had not been in contact since college, he confessed to her that he had always loved her. While the man himself was divorced after a long marriage, he was now living with someone new and therefore could not rekindle the romance he abandoned so long ago. Evidently, he simply wanted to get his feelings off his chest.
I asked my new friend what she felt about all this. She said she was grateful to have the “circle closed” and that she, too, had always loved him. Indeed, he was the only man she ever truly loved.
I’ve told the story to multiple people since then—I, too, needed to get it off my chest!—and everyone has a different reaction. Some see it as wholly tragic. Others see it as beautiful. Still, some consider the college boyfriend a huge jerk for reaching out three decades later with no intentions of starting a relationship. I, on the other hand, take it as a poignant parable on the unexpected ways our lives can be affirmed and uplifted from even the most unexpected of sources.
Think about all the people who manage to “get to us” in life, and not just in the romantic sense. Don’t you wonder why certain words and gestures can resonate more than others and continue to move us years later?
Last week, while taking a morning walk through the University of California, Berkeley, my stomping grounds three decades ago, I found myself missing a burly Italian-born gentleman who ran the café I frequented just about every night of my undergraduate career. Elio De Pisa wasn’t my friend in any conventional sense. He didn’t know my mother’s name or the story of my grandfather. If asked, he couldn’t have rattled off my favorite movies. But the little he did know about me, he acknowledged and vocally embraced.
I’ve never been the most socially adept person, and I was even less so in college. The everyday rituals of dating were never really an option for a kid as quirky and shy as I was. Nor, given my (literally) medieval intellectual interests, did I know exactly to which group I belonged. To wit, I was a born and bred agnostic who was drawn to early Christian philosophy.
Whenever I came in for my daily coffee and conversation at Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum, Elio would mock me lovingly for studying religion. “Gregorio Agustín de Salamanca!” he would call out whenever he saw me. (He knew and seemed to be amused by the fact that Augustine was my favorite saint.) The one time I was stupid enough to meet a young woman in that geriatric café, he told her not to trust me because I was a Jesuit. “With Jesuits you always have to read between the lines!” he bellowed.
Looking back, I realize that more often than not it has been relative strangers like Elio who could make me feel, despite all my self-doubts, that I belonged just by being myself.
In his Philadelphia homily, Pope Francis insisted that, “like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures.” He talked about the “the little miracles” that are quietly shared within loving families, those gestures “of tenderness, affection, and compassion” that “make us feel at home.”
But what he didn’t touch on was the way non-family members—colleagues, bosses, acquaintances, shopkeepers, café managers, and even strangers—can also bestow upon us little miraculous gestures that can lighten our load, give us confidence, and ultimately make us feel a little more at home in the world.
Last November, I gave a brief, frenzied, slightly nutty talk at the Getty Museum at a symposium that had been organized around the work of Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, an artist whose stark depictions of exile and alienation I’ve admired since college.
After my talk, Koudelka, whom I had never met, came up to me, repeatedly stuck his finger in my chest and asserted rather aggressively in his broken English, “You are who you are supposed to be. Some people will hate you. Some people will love you. I love you.”
I have no other way to describe that odd little moment other than as a tremendous gift, the memory of which somehow helps me understand my small place in the world.
It makes me think that the email my Hawaiian friend received from her long lost love was less a romantic gesture than it was a profound acknowledgement that a man whose affections she had once craved thought she was special, a feeling he deprived her of when he broke her heart so long ago. It was a particularly welcome acknowledgment, I assume, after her recent divorce.
We cannot live on gestures alone. But in a world that allows us to move faster and farther from home than ever before, it’s important to realize that it may very well be the kindness of strangers that helps keep us going.