Losers and generosity

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky

Losers come in many shapes and forms and emerge from unexpected places. The priests and Levites who avoided the wounded traveler in the Parable of the Prodigal Son were members of the Jewish elites, but they were selfish losers. The Samaritan was an apostate Jew. Moved with compassion, he alone sacrificed his time and money to care for the stranger. Jesus asks the “scholar of the law”: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The scholar—also one of the elite—must have felt a bit uncomfortable. He couldn’t even bring himself to pronounce “Samaritan.” So he responds, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Imagine that. Imitate an unbeliever.

An all-generous God created all of us in His image. Generosity also comes in various shapes and forms, frequently from outside the household of the faith.

Over fifty years ago, during freshman orientation at Columbia University, Arthur met a student from Buffalo named Sandy, and they immediately bonded over their shared passion for literature and music. Arthur and Sandy became roommates and best friends. With the idealism of youth, they promised to be there for each other come what may. (The friendship of David and Jonathan in the Old Testament comes to mind.)

Soon after starting college, Sandy suffered a disastrous infirmity. His eyesight became blurry, and although doctors initially diagnosed it as a temporary condition, the problem worsened. Sandy soon received news that severe glaucoma was destroying his optic nerves. The young man with such a bright future would soon be completely blind.

Sandy fell into a deep depression. He gave up his hope of becoming a lawyer and moved back to Buffalo. He fretted about being a burden to his financially-struggling family. Consumed with shame and fear, Sandy severed contact with his old friends, refusing to answer letters or return phone calls.

Sandy was stunned when his buddy Arthur showed up at the front door. Arthur refused to allow his best friend to give up on life, so he bought a ticket and flew up to Buffalo unannounced. Arthur convinced Sandy to give college another try and promised he would be right by his side to ensure he didn’t fall—literally or figuratively.

Arthur kept his promise, faithfully escorting Sandy around campus and effectively serving as his eyes. Even though Sandy had plunged into a world of darkness, Arthur resolved that his friend should never feel alone. With empathy, Arthur started calling himself “Darkness.” He’d say things like: “Darkness is going to read to you now.” Arthur organized his life around helping Sandy.

One day, Arthur was guiding Sandy through crowded Grand Central Station when he suddenly said he had to go and left his friend alone and petrified. Sandy stumbled, bumped into people, and fell, gashing his shin. After a couple of hellish hours, Sandy finally got on the right subway train. After exiting the station at 116th street, Sandy bumped into someone who quickly apologized—and Sandy immediately recognized Arthur’s voice! His trusty friend had followed him the whole way home, ensuring he was safe and giving him the priceless gift of independence. Sandy later said, “That moment was the spark that caused me to live a completely different life, without fear, without doubt. For that, I am tremendously grateful to my friend.”

Sandy Greenberg graduated from Columbia and earned graduate degrees at Harvard and Oxford. He married his high school sweetheart and became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist.

While at Oxford, Sandy got a call from Arthur. This time Arthur needed help. He’d formed a folk-rock duo with a high school pal, and they desperately needed $400 to record their first album. Sandy and his wife Sue had $404 in their bank account, but without hesitation, Sandy gave his old friend what he needed.

This first album was not a success, but one of the songs became a #1 hit a year later. The opening line echoed Arthur’s greeting of Sandy: “Hello Darkness, my old friend.” The Sounds of Silence. The folk duo—Simon & Garfunkel—became one of the most popular and beloved musical acts of the day.

Garfunkel had developed his voice as a boy. “I learned to sing in synagogues and talent shows when I was young.” Indeed, he served as his own cantor at his Bar Mitzvah, “singing the whole service for four hours.”

The two Columbia graduates are still best friends. Art Garfunkel said that when he became friends with Sandy, “my real life emerged. I became a better guy in my own eyes and began to see who I was—somebody who gives to a friend.” Sandy describes himself as “the luckiest man in the world.” There is no need to canonize anyone, but we should recognize a Good Samaritan when we see one.

This account is gleaned from Internet sources as adapted from Sandy Greenberg’s memoir: “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life.” See also: “Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life.”

I sent this story to a priest friend of mine. Here is how he responded:

When I was a scholastic and we had summer school in Los Angeles, we decided to go to an outdoor Simon & Garfunkel concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It was in 1968, and I wore my clerics, but the others wore the usual street clothes. We drove to the Bowl, and they let me off to hold a place in the ticket line while they parked the car. As I stood in line, an older couple approached me and asked me if I had tickets to the concert. When I said No, they invited me to join them in their front-row seats. So I did, and my Jesuit friends got tickets for four seats at the back of the Bowl, maybe a hundred yards away. The couple was Mr. & Mrs. Garfunkel.” (During that performance, the duo sang the Benedictus as composed by Orlando di Lasso— see the 48-minute mark.)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that we rediscover the splendor of humanity with a generous spirit. “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

 

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