I made a quick trip to the store tonight to pick up some milk, and on my way inside, a man stopped me, saying, “Wash your windows, ma’am?” I gave him a smile and said, “No thanks,” and he said, “Well, thank you,” and I could tell that it meant a lot to him that I even spoke to him. His bloodshot eyes were sad but hopeful and kind.
I wandered around the store, thinking about him, wondering what I could buy for him that would serve as a ready-made meal. I’m one of those people who’s reluctant to give money – I would so much rather give something like food or clothes, and I’m often afraid to dig in my wallet or pocket for cash out in the open. I picked up a bunch of bananas, remembering we were out at home, and decided to give him a banana and some cash. I had it all set in one hand to give to him as I walked out into the parking lot.
“Here you go, sir,” I said, when I saw him again, “it’s just a banana and a couple of bucks, but maybe it’ll help.”
He took both and looked at the banana in awe. “Will you look at that?” he said, peering closer at the banana, “this is a good one. Thank you! Bananas are my favorite fruit. Can I wash your windows?”
“No, it’s okay,” I said, “I really just want you to have it.”
“Well, happy Thanksgiving!” he said happily, and then, gesturing at my very large belly, “And congratulations!”
I carried my bags over to my car. I felt enormously sad, to the point of tears, and I realized that giving him one banana and a couple of bucks really wasn’t enough; for some reason I really wanted him to have all my bananas. So I marched right back to him and handed him the rest (to his great delight) and then walked back into the store to buy some more (to actually take home). I didn’t see him again after that.
I’d like to call myself a generous person, but to be completely honest, I don’t give of myself and the things I have enough. Don’t get me wrong, I give everything I am able to my family and my friends, but to the people who are utter strangers, I don’t. There’s always some reason not to: I don’t have any money on me, I don’t want to give money and have the person in question use it to buy alcohol or drugs, we’re broke, the person who’s asking for money is clearly lying about his or her situation, and so on and so forth with the list of rationalizations I use to convince myself why it’s better that I hold on tightly to what’s mine. Mine, mine, mine.
Growing up in a small Texas town didn’t really afford me many opportunities to see staggeringly poor people out in the open. As a teenager, I was able to go on a community trip to Washington DC, where I was shocked at the amount of homeless people asking us for money. The other people I had traveled to our nation’s capitol with were all members of various service organizations, and we were there to attend a rally called Stand for Children: in other words, stand up for the most vulnerable citizens of this country.
Many of the people in my group, wonderful people, would explain to me how you could tell that someone really needed the money they were asking for. If they were drunk or stoned, they didn’t need it. If they were belligerent in their demands, they didn’t need it. If they didn’t say please or thank you, they didn’t need it. I took a cue from all the schooling and decided to give some money to a little old lady pushing a shopping cart full of various things, who hadn’t asked me for anything. “God bless you, honey,” she told me. I felt an immense feeling of self-righteous satisfaction later on when I saw a man who had once approached us for money holding a bottle of liquor and throwing up on the street. “It’s a good thing we didn’t give him any money,” I told myself, “he’d just use it to get drunk.”
It took me years to realize I’d been given a significant lesson concerning the deserving vs. the undeserving poor.
There’s a lot of talk about entitlement these days. About the 53% who pay income tax and contribute to society and the 47% who don’t. About how there should be mandatory drug testing for people on welfare. About how those who are homeless really should just get it together and go get a job.
Remember Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks? I’m going to leave most of them alone. It’s been talked about to death. But there’s one part that really sticks out to me, and that’s this:
“All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
I am of the opinion that all of us should have our basic needs met. We should have access to food, shelter, and clothing, and if we are sick, we should be able to be treated by medical professionals. If we are unable to provide it for ourselves, for whatever reason, it should be provided it for us. We need a social safety net in place. It is a fucking tragedy that there are so many people who fall through the cracks. It is a fucking tragedy that the man I met in the grocery store parking lot earlier this evening had to stand outside in the cold, ignored by most everyone who passed him.
There’s a ton of hand wringing over “who’s going to pay for these entitlements? Nothing’s free!” And “I don’t want to pay for someone who’s just sitting on his ass not working.” And “every person I see using food stamps is wearing Uggs, using an iPhone, and driving a BMW.” We come up with a million reasons to justify not helping others.
And I’m no idiot. I know there are people who abuse the system. I know what’s it’s like to be lied to by someone who’s asking for money. I once gave a homeless man $5 – he told me he was looking to get to a nearby church for help – and then ran into him a month later, when he asked me for money again and gave me the same church story.
It’s just that I now realize that people are complicated. That life gets complicated and some people have no safety net and they end up on the streets and have to survive on their own wits entirely. And that it’s our job to reserve judgment and offer our help, our empathy, our compassion.
I’m making a real effort to give without reservation, to be truly generous, to stop making up reasons in my own mind not to help someone. I’m tired of looking at someone less fortunate and judging them and thinking about the bad decisions they probably made that landed them in that particular situation. I’m trying to see the common thread that connects us all: we all need help sometimes. We all make bad choices. We all deserve kindness.
I could have decided, based on the redness of his eyes, not to help the man in the parking lot this evening. And I fully realized, as I handed him the banana and the $2, that he might use that paltry bit of money to go buy some booze. But who’s to say what he did with it? At the end of the day, his actions are his alone, and mine belong to me. I want to act in a way that I am proud of, that I feel good modeling for my children.
What struck me most is the adoration with which he looked at the banana I gave him. He truly couldn’t believe his good fortune. At least in that moment, he was a man who knew more about appreciating the little things than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s why I had to give him the rest of the bunch.
It’s why I had to give as much as I could at the time.
Life is about digging deep. Stretching. Giving. Sharing. Love.
And the surprises that come when we truly open ourselves up to really seeing other people.