It was the evening before trash day in August of 2011, and I had just moved to Johannesburg, South Africa a month or two prior.
I opened the electric gate on the ten foot fence that surrounded me and my husband’s garden cottage, and rolled one of two trash bins down the driveway to the curb.
Maids and gardeners were finishing their shifts as domestic workers for the families in our neighbourhood, and people were scattered on the street.
It was the sound of the trash bin’s wheels rolling across the pavement that caused one gentleman to look back. I watched him turn around and head my way as I stepped back inside the gate to get the second trash bin.
As I wheeled the bin beside the other, we came face to face. My eyes met his as he gently spoke, “Excuse me, ma’am.” Then he lifted the lid to our trash bin and began rummaging.
I looked at his hands as he tore open the top bag. His bony fingers worked tirelessly to separate the tolerable from the intolerable.
There wasn’t a single item in there I’d deem tolerable. I searched his face. Was he hungry?
“Are you hungry, sir?” I asked. His fingers kept working. Without stopping or looking up he uttered a soft “yes.”
This man didn’t beg me for money. He didn’t beg me for food. In one small phrase he simply asked me to overlook him while he searched for something—anything—in our leftovers.
With one small phrase, he asked me to forgive him as he searched for value—for sustenance—in what we’d discarded.
This man, with visibly less than me, had immeasurably more. His humility, and the dignity he displayed despite his circumstances, pierced me.
It was me who needed to say, “Excuse me, sir.”
Excuse me for ever wondering how you could touch, how you could eat something so gross.
Forgive me, sir, for ever assuming you ended up where you are because you’re a bad person who made bad choices. Maybe you are, maybe you’ve done some terrible things, but it’s not my place to write your life’s script in my mind and treat you accordingly.
Excuse me, sir, for ever thinking you had lost your dignity and lowered yourself to disgraceful standards. You have measures of dignity and no traces of pride—something I desire a great deal.
Excuse me as I refuse to turn away from what I am seeing. Not because I’m gawking, but because I won’t look away from this. I won’t ignore you or leave you when your need is so visible.
It is me who needs to say, “Excuse me, sir.” You are changing me. What I see in you, what I see in this place, is changing me. Your dignity, your humility—the world needs it. I need it.
So many times, we’re excusing others—their behavior, their words, their actions.
But, mostly, if we’d stop for a moment…I think we’d see that it’s us who should be asking them to overlook what we have done—to excuse us—to forgive us.