The Beard: Physical Reminders of Discomfort and Compassion

Ask me six months ago and I would’ve told you that there was no way I would grow a beard anytime soon. I was certain of this.

You can also ask my girlfriend and my roommate, Brandon, last year, both of whom tried to persuade me hard to grow one on multiple occasions.

Yet, since March of this year, I’ve been walking around with this thing on my face.

What made me change my mind and why does any of it matter?

In short, I made the beard serve a beautiful and painful purpose greater than I initially expected.

In February, I started thinking about the idea of physical artifacts and the different purposes they can serve. For example, on the dresser in my room I have a “can of smiles.” It’s a decorative knick-knack that’s part of a larger art project about spreading smiles and joy. That’s exactly what it reminds me of too: smiles and joy.

Another example is this: on my desk at work I have an 8.5” x 11” poster with a Dr. Seuss quote.

This serves as a reminder for me to take action, to expect challenges, and to persist.

Around the same time that I was thinking about these artifacts that doubled as behavioral reminders, I was also getting ready to go on my fourth Alternative Spring Break (ASB) service trip.

Each of the previous three ASB trips had been an eye-opening, growing experience for me. So much so, that I realized I wanted some kind of physical reminder for this upcoming trip — to remember the experience, the people I met, stories I heard, moments of going outside my comfort zone, experiencing heartbreak, and deepening my faith. I needed something that would go beyond photos.

That’s how the beard started. A seven-day experiment. I left my razor and shaving cream at home as I traveled to Los Angeles for my trip.

With each day and new experience, the purpose that the beard could take on grew (as did the beard itself). That purpose came into play once I returned from the trip. It became the symbol and memory box, holding close the people I met in LA.

The Lucas family and other families, who welcomed my group into their homes, broke bread (or pupusas, an El Salvadoran dish) with us, and shared stories and laughs; the women of Dolores Mission Church who organized a walking procession through the neighborhoods to display their faith together in strength and pray for the community; The men and boys, like Richard or Steven, in the jail and juvenile hall; Sonia, the lady who makes an entire breakfast on her own for 50 homeless men and women five days a week; the children we played basketball and tag with on the playground at the Proyecto Pastoral after-school program.

The beard quickly became more than just an artifact to hold these memories and people. It became a vehicle to share their stories and to empathize with them on a daily basis, despite being 2,000 miles away.

For example, when I came back to Michigan, friends and family noticed that I now had a beard and would comment on that. This opened the door for me to explain, “Yeah, I started growing it during spring break, and now, I’ve kept it as a way to remember my trip, like meeting Gus from Homeboy Industries…”

It’s also a deeply personal thing. You see, almost all of those people that I mentioned above are immigrants, racial minorities, formerly incarcerated, and/or poor. Every day, these people face unjustified challenges and discomfort brought upon by oppressive systems — from the media to groups of government to schools and profiteering companies and many others.

Their realities are much different than my own.

I am not one of the normally healthy teenagers who have an anxiety attack because they’re so worried about their parents being taken away from them and being deported.

I am not a single mother with three children, who I’m trying to protect from succumbing to gangs, drugs, and death.

I am not a person living in a tent on Skid Row because I was manipulated and abused growing up and I haven’t been able to receive proper mental health services.

But how can I be more like them? How can I honor them and be present with them? How can I keep them in my heart and in my prayers?

The best answer I’ve found is to, in the tiniest of ways, simulate the challenges and discomfort that they experience daily.

It might sound crazy, but the discomfort I feel by scratching my beard when it’s itchy reminds me of the discomfort that the immigrants, prisoners, and poor might feel every day.

Every time someone comments on my beard, I think of those people.

Every time I look in the mirror to check for flakes of dried skin in my beard, I think of them.

Every time I dab on drops of beard oil in the morning, I think of them.

Of course, it’s not perfect in serving this purpose of cultivating empathy and compassion. There are still grand differences between 19-year-old Steven going through his day in the LA county jail while he faces the death penalty and my growing a beard.

I receive compliments and am told that the beard looks good; that’s likely not true for being incarcerated or being poor.

I can trim and shave this beard off anytime that I don’t want it anymore; that’s definitely not true for being a minority or immigrant.

The point is progress, and the reason I care intensely about this beard experiment goes back to something I heard on the last day of my ASB trip.

My group met Father Ted, the pastor of Dolores Mission (the church we stayed at), at the side entrance of the church. He led us around the humble building, sharing the history and meaning of different artifacts. Then, at the end, he told us this:

“You have undoubtedly made a difference this week. Coming here brings our people hope. I had an abuela come up to me once and ask, ‘Why do all these groups come here?’ I looked at her dead in the eye and told her, ‘They come here for you. They come to see OUR community.’
It shows us that we have something to offer, something of worth. The people is where the Body of Christ is.
But this was just one week. The real work, the real difference comes after this. It comes from you remembering this week — the men and women you served at the Guadalupe Homeless Project, the kiddos from Proyecto Pastoral, the hard-working families you stayed with.”

And then with his eyes welling up, he said with great conviction (referring to the immigrants and poor):

“They are not anonymous. They did not come to steal people’s jobs or take advantage of the system; they are here because they had to flee for their safety and because they did receive the love and care they needed.
A homeless man could have the biggest funeral that any of us have ever seen. Think about it.
These are our people…our brothers and sisters. Please, please, please remember them when you cast your votes…Keep them in your heart because your vote, your actions will impact their lives more than their own ever will.
Don’t go down silently with the status quo. Stomp heavily and shake things up.
And when you think you’ve stomped enough, keep stomping.”

My beard is how I remember to keep stomping.

His message and likewise, this blog post wasn’t meant for just myself and my group. It was meant for all of us!

How can we “stomp heavily and shake things up”? How can we simulate the discomfort and empathize with the immigrants, incarcerated, minorities, the poor, or anyone else who is facing oppression or unnecessary struggle?

We don’t have to grow beards to do this! We can be creative and find other ways.

Another quick example:

A few weeks after returning from the trip, I attended an event promoting a book called Awakening Compassion at Work, and at the event, I received this bracelet.

It says “Stretch toward Compassion.”

So, now, before I go into the store to have my laptop be repaired, I look at my wrist.

When a team member shows up late or doesn’t even show up to a meeting, I look at my wrist.

The bracelet is a reminder that I don’t know the whole story. In fact, I know only a tiny fraction of the story.

The customer service person assisting me at the store might be distressed herself; there’s no need for me to be impatient with her, even if my laptop being broken is an inconvenience.

What if I flipped the script and became of service to her instead of the other way around?

Simple physical artifacts can be powerful. By literally holding my values out in front of me, it becomes more difficult for me to compromise on them.

There are other ways to simulate the discomfort and cultivate compassion for others too. Here are a few ideas I came up with:

  • Walk around with your shoes on the wrong feet
  • Read a few pages or posts from the Humans of New York book or Facebook page each morning (links)
  • Say “Aloha” more — in English this has come to mean hello or goodbye, but in the Hawaiian language, it means affection, peace, compassion, and mercy
  • Wear a v-neck shirt backwards
  • Draw a square on your forehand with marker and try going about your normal day without taking it off (idea came from here)
  • Anytime you notice yourself beginning to judge someone, say a prayer for them instead — it could be as simple as: “may they be happy; may they be healthy; may they be well”

Whatever you end up doing, keep stomping and shake things up!

Questions to consider:

  • What ideas for this do you have? What are you going to try?

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