• Photo: Erect white momument surrounded by red, white, and pink flowers, low growing.

Living with Conscience: Martyrdom and "There's toilet paper stuck to your shoe."

Living with Conscience: Martyrdom and "There's toilet paper stuck to your shoe."

In large - or in seemingly small - ways, we can ease the suffering and tend to the dignity and justice of others.

Surrounded by a cross-me-not mote of tender, multicolored flowers, a monument in honor of Scituate native Reverend Charles Torrey stands tall and sharp-to-the-sky in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. The monument, erect where he lies buried, is a tribute to the man, a martyred abolitionist who died of tuberculosis at the age of 32 while in prison. He had been charged with and found guilty of stealing slaves, having freed roughly 400 slaves during his most active anti-slavery years, from 1841-1844 (the year of his arrest).

As we move in a taut and tangled direction in our country, a direction of threat, a direction of heightenedness and fear, and, indeed, threat of targeting, scapegoating, focused rage and decrepitude of moral control, I pose us to wonder what we are willing to do to help each other, individually, with great loneliness, possibly facing harm, condemnation, or even death. How much are we willing to sacrifice so that we may stand, unwaveringly, with our consciences in the face of egregious injustice. Some of us willingly delve into that question’s excavation pit. For some of us, it’s just too frightening to ponder.

Blessedly, we do not all need to sacrifice our lives to have a substantial impact on those around us. Indeed, we can take small actions that cause us some degree of awkwardness and inconvenience, and make life much better for another soul in our community.

This betterment starts with noticing those around us, looking up from our devices and taking in what’s going on. When we do this, we notice a shocking amount of suffering, suffering-about-to-happen, or preventable suffering, in our midst: tearful folks, angry folks, lost folks, miserable folks. Worrisome folks standing just a bit too close to the edge of the MBTA subway platform. Folks taking their anger out on their preschooler. Folks with backpacks or purses open to pickpockets' ease. Folks looking lost but leery about asking strangers for help.

Folks with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe.

Yes, I had an opportunity to make life amazingly better for a young man as I boarded the Red Line in Central Square a year ago. There he sat, very put-together, stylish, well-dressed, sharp looking, reading a book. I was near him, and noticed that stuck to the bottom of his good-looking shoe, was a sizeable piece of toilet paper. The kind of size and stuck that would have followed him around like a floor-cleaning angel, probably for some time after he left the subway. Probably for the whole day. Or a week, even. Into staff meetings that angel would trundle along, quietly cleaning the floor, whisperingly humming "Whistle while you work." I decided to let him know, quietly. With a bit of uneasiness, I sat down in the empty seat next to him, gently put my hand on his shoulder, and leaned in, whispering, “Sir, there’s a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your left shoe.” He gasped, looked down, lifted up his foot, and hurriedly pulled off the remnant of poo-reminder.

Then, he started to cry. Sob.

Through his tears, this young man sputtered, “I’m so ashamed. I’m so embarrassed. What would have happened if you hadn’t told me? I’d have wanted to die. I’m so ashamed.” His head in his hands, book on the floor of the subway, he cried. I put my arm around him and stayed silent.
For a few minutes’ ride from Charles Square to South Station, this young soul no longer crying, we sat next to each other on the rocking train. When he rose to leave, he again thanked me, deeply, for doing something you’d imagine to have been saving his beloved yellow lab puppy Sweetie from a fire. No. I’d just told this proud, young gent that he had toilet paper stuck to his shoe, and the floodgates of shame opened up into quivering distress.

That’s all it really takes to draw someone back from the edge sometimes. No, make that “often.”

So we can float around our community, awake, noticing and saying these kinds of things to our co-feelers:

“Your bag’s zipper is open.”
“Are you alright?”
“There’s toilet paper stuck to your shoe.”

May there always be someone – friend or stranger – nearby you, paying attention, at-the-ready to connect with you in unexpected moments of need. May we all be paying attention to each other - and to each others' shoes - as we move through our days, knowing that we can step up to the plate, whether in huge or seemingly small ways. It is all sacrifice. It's unnerving. It takes a risk. And it all makes a difference in the life of another soul.