Out of the Woods / Giving thanks at the Y
Picture this: I am in the locker room at the YMCA chatting informally with a young man who appears to be about 40. He is clean-shaven, well-spoken, and has a friendly manner. For some reason, we got on the subject of pain (my back, his headache). He tells me he has had a migraine for most of his life and there is nothing anybody can do to help him. I make a few suggestions. He has tried all of them.
Nonetheless, he is in good spirits and he tells me: "I have never felt better in my life. I feel fortunate to be in the place I am. I have nothing to complain about. I've been through a lot but I am very thankful to be alive. For me, that is enough."
Naturally, always the inquisitive reporter, I ask him what he means. What has he been through that makes him feel so fortunate today -- with Thanksgiving on the horizon?
Quietly and casually, he tells me bits and pieces of his story. He ran away from home when he was 10 years old, never went further than fifth grade in school, spent years addicted to drugs, drifting from one place to another, but is now "clean" and living in the Gillespie Center, otherwise known as the town shelter. He is appreciative of the support he has gotten.
"I have been through several rehab programs and I never felt better in my life. I am in a good place right now. I am getting used to living with pain. Other people I have met along the way have had it much worse," he tells me, as if to assure me that I should not feel sorry for him.
More questions come to my mind but I decide not to pursue them, not to further invade his privacy or take advantage of his unusual openness. Nonetheless, I am wondering: How does he manage to work out at the Y? Where does he get the money to pay for the membership fee? But I refrain from asking him. I do not want to appear to be judgmental. He's probably had enough of that most of his life.
Nonetheless, I scratch that itch and check with someone at the Y who informs me that it has an arrangement with the Gillespie Center to permit people to use its facilities if they are in "good standing" with the center and just go about their business.
I must confess that I was deeply moved to learn about this -- especially on the eve of Thanksgiving. Here, in the midst of men of considerable wealth and accomplishment, some retired, some still working, I find this pleasant young man taking care of himself. He looks fit, feels fine, and is ever so grateful just to be alive. It is humbling.
I realize just how fortunate I am -- as well as the majority of other men in that locker room. I want to make him realize that I understood his situation. So I share with him the fact that more than two decades ago, my own son, who similarly found himself entwined with drugs, had run away from a private, upscale school for troubled kids in Massachusetts, only to find himself living at the Gillespie Center. The choice had been his. He could have gone back to school -- but he could not come home. Those were the rules of the school. You might call it "tough love." It helped.
When I pack my bag at the Y and start leaving the locker room, I wish my new acquaintance a "Happy Thanksgiving." That draws a wide, smile from him. It makes me feel good to be a member of the Y, which has so many programs that help so many people of all ages and backgrounds in town.
It is an epiphany. I find it fascinating. Here, in the midst of all these seemingly well-to-do adults and their children, is a young man who -- despite his obviously dysfunctional background -- manages to feel comfortable with himself and with others, like myself, with whom he easily converses.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is yet another example of how Westport demonstrates it is a place where compassion and giving is a way of life.
Perhaps it is somewhat self-serving, but I really do believe, as our own Joanne Woodward once put it, that Westport is "a special place." That does not mean we are better or even superior to any other town. We are just special in our own eyes. Most of us know how much our sense of community and our coming together to help others is the mark of a town where civility and generosity matter.
We are diverse, opinionated and frequently overly aggressive in expressing our opinions publicly. But at the end of the day, we come together most of the time. Our history has proven, time and time again, that even after the most bitter fights, we care about one another, about those who have less (read all the stories about individuals and groups giving at Thanksgiving and at Christmas, in fact, year-round).
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Westport gets an "A" in social conscience. Yet, I do not think we realize just how fortunate we are in terms of our privileged economic well-being. In the past, I have questioned our values -- our tendency to try and "buy" happiness, to emphasize money over everything else. We often equate "happiness" with money; we want more and more material possessions. No matter how much we may have. Unfortunately, we are a reflection of our society at large.
We are often conspicuous consumers living in a self-perpetuating pocket of plenty, shielded for the most part from the rest of the world. Many of us feel the residual fallout from the Great Recession in some ways -- but not nearly as much as tens of thousands of other towns across our country where people have lost their jobs, have lost or are in danger of losing their homes in foreclosures, and have just about given up hope.
A wiser individual than this writer once told me that when one is not able to solve a perceived problem, "Keep things in perspective. If you think you have a real problem, just think: `Compared to what?'"
On this Thanksgiving, I am reminded that Gandhi famously once said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."