Gene is a gentle giant, a retired football player whose body has been put through a lot. He has a hard time getting around, and a lot of pain, and that is actually exactly where his story starts: in pain. Gene describes himself as having the quintessential American “perfect” life: the wife, the kids, the really good six figure salary government job at the Pentagon, a white picket fence surrounding the house he’d bought in suburbia. But then, at 35, the pain of his body was getting to be too much. It was his back, among other things, and he couldn’t keep up the pace. A doctor prescribed pain pills, and then more pain pills, and then more pain pills. He just kept giving them to Gene, and Gene kept taking them, trying to chase away the pain in his body and keep up the relentless pace of a stressful job and a commute from suburbia and the demands of family life, numbing himself and pushing forward rather than admit that he might have to edit his life due to what his body could and couldn’t do at that point in time. It was the perfect recipe for disaster.
Gene ended up addicted to the pain pills, abusing them. Slowly but surely, things started to slip, they started to go downhill. As so many people do, instead of reaching out for help, Gene tried to hide the problems he was having, drowning in the shame of it all. He said the loneliness is what he remembers, how he felt so alone, so sure that nobody would be there for him, so sure that nobody would understand. He didn’t get the help he needed, not for a long time, and not before he ended up losing nearly everything.
Now, he looks back at it all and shakes his head. He’s trying to put his life back together. He’s living at Earl’s Place, going to meetings. He helps lead a youth group. The doctor that gave him all those prescriptions, the legal drug dealer that got him hooked, he’s in jail now, but that doesn’t help undo the damage that Gene suffered in his life. I wouldn’t blame Gene if he was angry, but I didn’t get any of that; maybe at this point he knows that it’s not worth it, not an emotion that will help him. Instead, I just got a lot of deep knowing, insight and advice that was grounded in all he’s gone through in life.
When I asked Gene what he’d want all of you to know, he said, “We all have a story.” There was sadness in his eyes. So often, we look at others and assume that everything we see that’s “bad” is due to a lack of moral character, a lack of being a “good human,” whatever that means. But when we fall, we tend to see it as a result of circumstances. If there is one thing I want to tell every single person I touch with this trip, it is that every single person has a story. Every single person has faced circumstances that you can’t see on their sleeves, obstacles that would inspire empathy if we knew them. It’s so easy to make assumptions, and as a society we tend to make the worst ones. We are hard-wired to make assumptions, but what if we assumed that each person in front of us tried their very best, faced horrible circumstances that we can’t even know, and fell on hard times because of it? How different would the world look if we assumed the best about humans, rather than the worst?
Remember… We all have a story. I urge you to try to see the person, not the addiction, or the disease, or the homelessness.