Born Under a Bad Sign

“Hi, my name is Greg, I’m one of the chaplains here, and I have come by to offer conversation …”

I have just entered the dimly lit room of Hector, a man in his 50s with a nasty abscess.  As I speak these words he comes into focus:  a shaved head, heavily tattooed arms, staring out the window.  He is visibly agitated, rubbing his eyes with his forearm, sniffing.  He neither accepts nor declines my offer.

“… or company, or whatever you might want.”

After more silent agitation, he begins without looking toward me.  “Everything is so f***ed up right now, I have no idea what to do.  My girlfriend, if that’s what she is, dragged me up here from Arizona—said things would be better here.  But I don’t know anybody here, and now I’m stuck in here and she doesn’t care.  She was supposed to come by today but she’s not, she’s going off to get high with friends.”

“I’m so sorry, Hector.  That’s really hard.”  I sink slowly into the chair beside his bed.

“I want to get out of here and go back to Arizona, but she’s got my wallet and I don’t have any money.  If I go back I’m facing 10 years, but I’m thinking maybe prison’s better than being here, at least there I know what’s what.”

I nod silently, offer a sympathetic grunt.  I am truly at a loss for words.

“I’m trying to get clean after nearly OD’ing and she said she’d help but she’s started using again.  Every time I try to say anything to her about that she just pins it all back on me.  Everything is my fault.”

“You’re trying to get clean, and that’s hard to do when the person you’re with is using.”

Hector looks toward me for the first time.  “Exactly.”  He looks away again.  “I’m clean all right—I’ve been in here for two weeks—but now all these feelings are coming up that I’ve never let myself feel before and I can’t stand it, it hurts so bad.  All I want to do is use again to make the pain go away.”

“I’m sorry, Hector.  That sounds awful.”

“We were trying to get help at a shelter here. They told me all I need to do is put my faith in Jesus, to trust God and God will take my pain away.  How the hell is that supposed to work?  I’ve tried reading the Bible like they told me but I can’t find anything in there that helps me.”

“Sometimes people use the Bible in ways that they think are helpful but actually aren’t helpful.”

Hector turns toward me again.  “Not helpful at all.  When I OD’ed I called my grandmother and all she had to say was that the Bible says suicide is a sin.  That didn’t help anything.  It’s true, I suppose, that using heroin is like trying to commit suicide.  But I was born addicted …”

“From your birth mother?”

Hector nods, then turns away.  “Got put up for adoption.  My adoptive parents were pretty good to me but we never had any money.  So I started stealing stuff to make money.  My mom died when I was 14 and my dad when I was 15 so I joined a gang to have someplace where I felt like I belonged.  I went into prison when I was 19 and that’s where I’ve spent most of my life.”

“That’s a hard life, Hector.”

He looks toward me and nods again.  Just then a doctor enters, and we both know our time is up.

“I just appreciate you listening, letting me say all this instead of keeping it bottled up like I usually do.  I hate feeling like this, I hate that I’m crying like this.  But I can’t tell you how much it means for you to come and listen to me.”

I only made it 10 steps from Hector’s door before I needed to take a seat and try to absorb this conversation.  I have listened many times to people raised (or still growing up) in difficult circumstances, but this one struck especially deeply.  The excerpts above only begin to capture Hector’s rage, his sense of betrayal by everyone in his life, the way his pain pierced him to his very core—and his beautiful spirit.  Like so many patients I see, I left his room wanting more—not so much to learn more personal history, but to experience his humanity more fully.  Sadly, this was our only visit.

Approaching Hector’s bed, though, as I settled in to his physical presence and recognized the evident gap in our life circumstances, my main thought was, “What could I possibly say to this person that might establish a connection?”  The answer: “Not much—just listen well.”  Not everyone wants to speak, but everyone wants to be listened to if there is no agenda other than to become known by another person. 

It’s hard to imagine who Hector might have ever spoken to before in this way.  Not his peers or jailers, for whom vulnerability is a sign of weakness to be despised or exploited.  Not the people at the shelter, who saw him as a chance to save a soul for Jesus.  It drove home for me again how universally we desire simply be known, respected, and loved as the human beings we are at our core.

Albert King’s blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” begins:

Born under a bad sign, I been down since I began to crawl

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Like many people, I often reflect on why I was born into my time, place, and family.  I’ve had my challenges, but relatively speaking I won the lottery.  Hector did not.  One theme that ran throughout our conversation, though never explicitly stated, was, “I’m trying to be a good person.  What did I do to deserve this?”  I don’t think he did anything, but that doesn’t really answer his question.

I don’t believe I deserved or earned my good fortune, which leads me to a place of gratitude for God’s grace.  But what is the counterpart for misfortune?  How does one forge a trusting relationship with one’s creator when born into such grim circumstances?  I don’t have any answers to these questions, either.

I know that many who are born into such circumstances nevertheless do form faith.  I wonder about the experiences and/or environmental factors that make such faith possible.  I wonder how someone in Hector’s situation could come to believe in a loving God that wants the best for him.  I see God’s light burning beautifully within Hector, in spite of all his suffering, but I wonder what it would take for him to see it and believe in it himself.

Despite not having answers to these questions, this is the work to which I most feel called.  Maybe a lack of answers is an essential prerequisite to doing this work well.

8 thoughts on “Born Under a Bad Sign

  1. Margie Simmons

    Greg, you are doing this work well! I especially resonated with this: “What could I possibly say to this person that might establish a connection?” The answer: “Not much—just listen well.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bruce Alber

    After reading Hector’s comments to you, I thought that you may have been the first person to ever listen to him. Very well done.

    Then in your comments, you of course recognized this fact. You are doing amazing work Greg.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kay Ellison

    Thank you, thank you, Greg, for sharing this. Even more, thank you for what you do. I want to learn how to just listen, how to make non judgmental comments, like you did. “It must be hard to…” And I agree, I am so fortunate to have been raised in the situation I have been. I want to be more understanding of others. Thank you for helping that happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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