I hop on the metro. I’m wearing a pinstriped suit, a collared shirt and a blue tie. I’ve got a lightweight laptop bag hanging casually over my shoulder. I check my smartphone: four events on my calendar. Lunch with my manager at Giovanni’s. Two meetings with important clients. A conference call with my team.
I look around me. There’s a woman sitting nearby, reading her Kindle. A man to her right reads the Washington Post. An older gentleman stands nearby, browsing on his iPhone while he listens to an audiobook. I choose to stand.
I walk the city streets of downtown Washington DC with a degree of confidence bordering on all-out swagger. I pass other suit-clad men as they walk past with their briefcases. Probably on their way to the capital building. Lawyers, accountants, senators and judges. I give a disparaging look to a beggar asking for change. How dare he annoy me.
I flash my badge as I enter the building. I’m cleared to continue and I move quickly towards the bay where the elevators wait. As I round the corner, I am caught off-guard and I run straight into a man going the opposite way. My bag falls to the ground and a pile of documents spill out. The man moves to help but I wave him off. “I got it,” I say, but in my mind I wonder why this jerk can’t watch where he’s going.
As I gather my things, my eyes fall on a photograph.
It belonged to me, but it seemed unfamiliar. I hadn’t seen it for a long time. I turn my head slightly to one side as I lift it up and examine it more closely.
His name was Felipe Evaristo Feliciano. We were friends once. Good friends. In another life. He didn’t speak English very well, but he tried his best. We would go grocery shopping together, and he would point to a fruit and ask, “What is this one?”
“It’s a lemon.”
“Ohhh. Lemon. I like this one. It’s nice.”
“What is this one?”
“We eat a lot of this one in my country.”
Felipe was from Mozambique, where he grew up in a village just outside of Beira. His father passed away while he was still young and he was raised by his mother. That’s all I know about his past.
I remember his willingness to learn. He would ask me to correct his English. “Please!” he would say. “I don’t feel bad. If you do not tell me, then I will not learn.” He had a heart of pure gold. I remember reaching to put on my pair of black dress shoes and finding them already polished and brushed for the day. It happened often. He never said anything and I never said anything but we both knew. He taught me with his example. He showed me of the many ways to communicate clearly without even saying a word. When I think of his humility, his sincerity, his kindness, I begin to remember.
How could I have ever forgotten.
It seems to be an innate human trait to seek validation. To desire to have people be impressed with you. To be respected. To be in demand. To be important.
“Remember, Caesar, thou art Mortal,” goes the whispered warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. How could Caesar have forgotten? He was drunk with power, insulated by his fame and popularity. His pride blinded him.
The story you just read about me in my pinstriped suit was mostly true. Sure, there was no collision, no photo falling out of my bag. But as I walk around DC, I sometimes think about how terrifyingly easy it would be for me to start behaving like that man. Proud. Arrogant. Condescending.
In some situations, for brief moments, I’ve actually felt that way. It’s shocking, really, that I could forget so quickly that I was a struggling student not long ago, with nothing to my name. I’m no different a person today than I was 6 months ago. So why act like I am?
Ultimately, if fame, respect, or importance, ever causes me to be like the man in the pinstriped suit, then I will have made a grave mistake. It’s the modern day selling of the proverbial birthright for a mess of pottage. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? ” I hope to never aspire to such a profit. Because once you meet someone like Felipe Feliciano you begin to realize that the inflated egos of successful CEOs, Wall Street brokers, or superstar athletes are nothing to aspire to.
Thanks Felipe, for reminding me of that.