Lesson # 8 – Learned from the Juggler in the Park

Last week Dee and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary together. We spent the day in Philadelphia—the city where we first met. While strolling through Rittenhouse Square Park, we had a memorable encounter with a man who inspired lesson #8. It’s a simple lesson in finding the strength to push through the obstacles that life throws our way.

Lesson #8—Learned from the juggler in the park

Regardless of where you are in Philly—at the Italian markets in the South, on the playgrounds in the Northeast, or walking the cobblestone streets in Old City—there is a grittiness in the air. After a few deep breaths, an “I won’t back down” feeling fills your lungs. It’s the people who give the city energy.

Maybe it’s the “Rocky Balboa” effect or the strong union workforce. Perhaps it’s the thousands of aides, nurses and doctors working for any of the world-renowned cancer-fighting hospitals in the region. The attitude is certainly amplified by the die-hard fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.

As Dee and I walked through the park we came upon a man who embodies this uncompromising spirit. His name is Mike. He’ll tell you that he’s a self-employed gardener during the week—but you can find him every Saturday and Sunday performing next to the tarnished Memorial Sundial statue near the entrance on 18th and Walnut. He’s a formidable figure who looks even bigger when he’s tossing bowling pins or hula hoops for a crowd of children.

His rough exterior suggests that life hasn’t been easy for Mike. A day at the office often means putting up with a few disrespectful teenage or inebriated adult hecklers, a scuffle with other performers attempting to steal his turf or being chased from his spot by the park’s security guards.

In spite of these day-to-day challenges, Mike still comes to work.

On this particular day, Mike wasn’t making much effort to corral a crowd. A closer look and he seemed more weathered than I remembered. He was standing quietly with his back to passersby, seemingly pensive as he polished his props when I approached him.

“How’s it going, Mike?” I asked.

He paused for a few seconds, then without looking up he said, “I’m OK.”

He took another deep breath, then looked over at me. He must have sensed the sincerity in my asking and his guard dropped a little.

“Well, I was actually in a accident,” he said. “I was hurt pretty bad.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, are you feeling better now?”

“I’m still beat up.”

I came a step closer to show him I was actively listening. He didn’t hold back on details. He went on to say, “You know, they’ve been trying to run me out of here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. What can you do?”

“Well, I researched it. They got no right. I do this for the kids. I make them laugh,” he said, a man with purpose.

I agreed. “The kids need you, Mike.”

“That’s why I do it. And I’ll keep coming back.”

He came closer to me and extended his hand. We shook, and I expressed my gratitude for the lesson Mike shared with me (unbeknownst to him).

“Thanks for pushing through, Mike—through all of it.”

We all have tough parts of our jobs—some mental, some physical. Often you wake up and either your brain or your body tells you “no,” “can’t” or “don’t wanna.” In those moments, remember your mission—a child, a patient, a colleague or a client is depending on you to push through.

Mike came to work worn down and bruised just to stand there as if to say “I’m still fighting.” My interaction was a reminder that no matter how difficult the obstacle, you just gotta show up.

Thanks, Mike. We adults need you, too.