"Antonio, I busted in there as mad as a hornet, but you can't stay mad when you start thinking things like that. Once you begin noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth and think about the way his folks gave a hopeful name to him when he was first born into this world, you might as well give up."
"I said, 'Virgil, the night is dark, and we are far from home.' How come it was the words of that old hymn popped into my mind just then to say? I don't know, but it did. I said, 'The night is dark, Virgil Roebuck, and home's a long way off for both of us.'"
(Leo Bebb, to Virgil Roebuck, in The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner)
I revisited an old friend, Leo Bebb, this past weekend. Bebb is the former con man, flim-flam artist, and most profound reverend at the center of Frederick Buechner's quartet of novels, collectively known as The Book of Bebb. Bebb is a provocative mixture of the sacred and profane, a man who has seen it all, sinned much, and yet is all the more full of grace. His encounter with Roebuck --- his non-believing, bitter nemesis --- is indicative of the charitable way he viewed the unlovely, perhaps because he knew that he was not so much different than them.
What Bebb is referring to here is a conversation he had with Roebuck. It's one of the most profound "sermons" I have ever read or heard, painful in its honesty and rich in grace, and yet because of the profanity I doubt it'll be preached from any pulpit, and I cannot reprint it here. But take my word for it: Bebb reaches Roebuck in that moment because he understands what is behind the crusty exterior of the man. He knows something of his pain, and Roebuck knows it, and because he knows it, for a moment Bebb has credibility. Roebuck really listens.
I often watch people, but much less often do I regard them as does Bebb, "noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth," considering what particular struggles they have. I particularly have difficulty regarding those who are annoying or embittered in this way, people who are unpleasant to be around. Maybe even people who are not happy. We like happy people, you know. And yet these are just the people I need to take a better look at, because if I can have compassion for them then I should be able to have compassion for anyone.
It's said that if you pray for such people, you'll begin to have compassion for them. In other words, God will give you eyes to see what is behind their unpleasantness. But it's also true that if you write stories about them you will begin to know them as well. Indeed, the best stories are the ones that portray their characters as the complex people we all are. They help us see the hope in a name given by parents to a child, the promise and peril of being human.
There is a young woman I met in Africa named Fortunate. Can you imagine that? Her parents gave her a name that they hoped she might see fulfilled. Similarly with Grace and Faith, two other women I met. Names with promise.
Thanks to Bebb, I'm a little closer to seeing people for who they are and, maybe, a little more compassionate. I'm better seeing in the dark.