The Parable of a Tree

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Nothing But a Good Word

By Lobna Youssef Mulla, MAS National Tarbiya Director

As we saw in the President’s response to the tragic events last week in Charlottesville, words matter – good words, bad words, ugly, and the seemingly insignificant words. Whether we are communicating to others as parents, friends, coworkers, community members, and so on, we have a responsibility for the words we choose. And Allah reminds us in the Qur’an with a striking parable – the parable of a tree.

These are the words I began to write as I sat down to craft this Dhul Hijjah reminder in a coffee shop. Glory be to Allah, what happened next was truly a striking reminder of the power of words. A distraught man walked into the coffee shop, his face was withered by the sun and a tough life. He walked in quietly, with no shoes, covered with tattoos – including his neck and face. His hands were shaking, he held them together as he began his address to those chatting, working on their laptops, and flipping through their phones. “Excuse me everyone, excuse me.” I took a quick look at him, and went back to work as he continued. I glanced over at the person next to me, who didn’t pay the man any mind as well. The man who entered went on, despite the overall lack of attention and interest. “I am a good person, and I don’t know why people are saying things about me. People are gossiping and saying things that are not true.”

From the man’s speech, I ascertained that he wasn’t well, and did not seem to be in a healthy mental state. I felt for him, he wanted someone to listen. I turned and made eye contact as he continued his somewhat coherent story. He focused on me, since perhaps no one else looked in his direction. “Maybe I could help him, by buying him some food,” I thought to myself. I got up and told the man, “Can I buy you a sandwich?” He didn’t refuse as we walked up to the counter. Yet, what happened next shocked me. I pointed to the selection and asked him, “What can I get you?” He looked at the food, and looked away as he desperately rubbed his head with both hands. “No, I can’t eat, I don’t know what to do.” My motherly instincts kicked in. I wanted to tell him, “If you eat, maybe you’ll feel a little better.” However, I learned he didn’t need to fill his stomach, he needed something much more.

“Maybe you can get something for later, ” I tried. The man looked at the food once more and just said, “I can’t.” We stood just a few feet from the cashier, and he continued, “I’m trying to get my life back together, you know, I’ve been to the church and I don’t know what else to do. I’m a heroin addict, and I used to be in a gang, but I’m not doing any of that no more.” I nodded and said, “I understand you’re trying really hard.” He continued. I listened to him a while longer, and shared a few words of encouragement. He ended the conversation and we both parted ways. He left the shop and I walked back to my table. A couple of people wanted to know why he refused the food. They were surprised. I told them that he seemed to have a lot on his mind, and that he didn’t want to take any food. After a few more minutes, the man returned. Once again, he addressed the customers and asked, “Do I look like a bad person?” I overheard some responses, unsure of what was said. He left again, and after sometime, I left the shop, headed for home. In the parking lot, I didn’t expect to see the man there. He was across the way near a disheveled car that seemed to be his home. “Excuse me, excuse me ma’am.”

Many thoughts rushed through my mind, but as I held my keys in my hand I decided to engage once more, since there were others nearby. The man asked me, “Do you believe in the Lord?” “I sure do,” I replied. He continued to share his story, now talking about his wife and his two young children and how they deserve to grow up with a father. I affirmed his thoughts. Tears welled up in his eyes as he talked about his father who who aging, his mother who he hadn’t seen in five months, and his brother who lives in another state who is suffering from cancer. As I remained compassionate, I couldn’t help but think, “Here comes the pitch for money.” He stood there and struck me with his words, “Just because I’m a drug addict, it doesn’t mean I am a piece of dirt. I am a good person, and I have my whole life ahead of me.” “You are a worthy human being, and you sure do have your whole life ahead of you,” I affirmed. “Just pray for me,” the man asked as tears continued to fall. “I pray to God from the bottom of my heart, that God guides you and protects you and your family.” “Thank you,” the man said as he wiped his eyes with his shirt, revealing scars and more tattoos. As he wiped his face, he added in all seriousness, “I would hug you, but I don’t know you.” I chuckled inside. “God Bless you,” I said as we said goodbye and once again, parted ways. I sat in my car and was dumbstruck. The man didn’t ask for money or for food. All he wanted was hope, an ear to listen and a good word.

As we think of ways to help others, let us not forget the power of words. Lift someone up today with a good word.