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This I Believe: Pickled Hysteria

Brett Palmer headshot
Rachel Lattimore
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

On a frigid January evening, I, along with other members of my church, decided to donate time to serving a hot meal to people planning to spend their night sleeping on a childlike cot in a warm, temperature controlled Salvation Army homeless shelter. I have no idea what to expect on a night like this. 

So many misperceptions of homeless people that had been drilled into my brain throughout my life were reappearing in my consciousness yet again. “Are they gonna take my money? Where are my keys?” Confused, nervous and skeptical, I begin to wonder why I’m here. I know I want to help people, I know I want to make a difference in their lives, and I Know - because of the hustle and bustle about me - that I better get back to setting up the delicious meal. Barbecue sandwiches - mmm mmm! Fruit cocktail - muy delicioso! Desert, too! Wow! Oh, and might I forget to add, there were dill pickles too. “Okay, I’m ready.” I covered my hands with plastic gloves and manned the bag of hamburger buns, undoing the fastener keeping them fresh. The woman in charge opens the door to the freezing outdoor world and yells “Dinner is ready! Please come in and have a seat!”

In the door they file and quickly they sit down, patiently waiting and rubbing their hands together for warmth. The woman asks a waiting man to say a prayer of gratitude. “Amen,” we all say, when he’s finished, and abruptly they form a single file line, ready for each church member to serve them a portion of their meal. First, my grandfather hands them fresh dill pickles. Next, I place sandwich buns on their plates. However, as one man at the end of the line, in a faded stocking cap and tattered jean jacket, begins to go through the line, there is a brief pause in my bun placing duty. This man receives two pickles from my grandfather to put on his sandwich, but he stands there asking for more, repeatedly saying through his laughter, “Aw man, this is the good stuff!” Generously, my grandfather chuckles and gives him a handful more. Then to my amazement, the man does not even want a sandwich. I watch him and his plate full of pickles sit down with a group of people he has no connection with, other than the fact that they are homeless. Nonetheless, he smiles and cracks jokes as if he is with a group of long lost friends he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Showing great appreciation and respect, he comes up to my grandfather three more times, asking for more pickles and nothing else. Each time, he sits back down and continues with his cheery evening. Never had I seen so much happiness in one room, and I was astonished to see it there, of all places. It was as if they all had forgotten the freezing temperatures they just survived and the horrendous living conditions they face daily and were thankful for - well, pickles! No longer was my mind occupied with nerves, but rather disappointment in myself for being nervous in the first place. “What makes someone happy?”  

Such a simple question with so many often complex answers. Could something as simple as pickles really make someone happy? Happiness is defined in a variety of different ways. Often, we are placed in situations where it is difficult to see positivity. However, in these same situations, we must learn to embrace the simplest things in life. Don’t try to calculate your happiness, just let it wash over you. No matter what happens to you, never tell yourself that you are unhappy, simply because you cannot be as unhappy as the people I saw at the homeless shelter on that blistering evening. Whenever you begin to feel unhappy, think of the pickled hysteria of a homeless man. Happiness is not something to be found, but rather it is with you all along. As President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” This I believe.

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