Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Simple connection

Yesterday, I woke up with one of those migraines that make me long for the days when sucking my thumb and whimpering were an acceptable way of coping with things. Thus, I expected a day filled with a whole lot of nothing much. Once the pain killers began to take the edge off, I made myself an industrial strength, super-sized cup of tea, watched a few geese migrating and looked at some internet links that friends had sent me. Two different people had sent me a link to the same blog post. (here) I cried as I read the story and mulled over its meaning.

It is a simple story of a woman reaching out in a simple way to a total stranger. World peace is not achieved. Cancer is not cured. Nothing that the world views as grand is accomplished. And yet, something extraordinary does happen. And perhaps the tears were brought on by the very fact that it is extraordinary. Or at least much more extraordinary than it should be. I talked about it with a few folks who had read it as well. There were different reactions, as one would expect. These reactions, of course, made me consider it further.

One person was concerned about the impact her action could have had on her small children. Granted, we do tell our kids not to talk to strangers, especially strangers on the street, with very good reason. And every parent is rightly protective of them in that way. But the person seemed to miss the other side of it. What impact, indeed, might it have on her children to see their mother showing compassion to another human being on a regular basis. A very positive one, I imagine. It very well could inform how they come to view and treat others in their lives. The mother showed respect toward a stranger and, from her own need, shared what she could. Not a bad model to be putting forth.

A couple of others expressed concern as to whether or not the recipient was either really in need or was responsible for their own situation and thus, perhaps, not deserving of her compassion. This is a position that I understand. In our city, we've enacted laws about "aggressive pan-handling" because of certain people harassing others on the streets downtown. It became a big enough problem that the city government had to take steps. And, granted, we do have a number of groups of homeless kids constantly trying to beg money for coffee and puppy chow. It is no wonder that folks become tired of it. But, for me, there is another side to it. What do we do to ourselves, if we do not see and respond (in someway) to those who are around us? When we cease to recognize them as one of our own? I think we damage a part of ourselves. That part that was so alive on the kindergarten playground when another child was hurt. That cries over news stories from the other side of the world. That cannot bear the thought of a mother's loss of her child, no matter who she or her child might be. It's a part of our humanity that gets buried a bit each time we turn away from part of humanity.

And I believe that this goes far beyond street people and their obvious problems. It extends to everyone else around us with their not so obvious situations. Perhaps it is the fault of societal problems. Perhaps it is our myth of self-sufficiency. Perhaps it is nothing more than fear for our own security. Whatever it is, almost all of us pull our hearts in and shut them off from various people and situations. We believe that we cannot or should not cope with any problems other than our own. I fail miserably at it myself, but I do have two reasons why we should try to move beyond this belief.

First of all, whatever or whoever is before us is, by definition, a part of our life. We may not have invited them. We may not have asked for the event or situation or person to present themselves, but there they are awaiting a response. Certainly, our response can be to turn away. Sometimes that is possible. We can ignore the beggar, the sick, the criminal, the inconvenient, generally without overt repercussions. They (or someone just like them) will continue to be there, whether we ignore them or not. We can't fix all the problems of the world. Very true. But might we not also be able to address the small problem of this minute that stands right in front of us? And if we do not, who will? And if we do not, what does that do to us?

Secondly, every organized religion that I'm aware of (and most of the non-organized spiritualities as well) demand that we reach out to help others. The holy books and great thinkers do not suggest that it might be a good idea. They do not say, "do it if it is convenient." They do not say, "hope that someone else will come and do it." They just say do it. Whatever IT might be in the moment.

Do I follow my own ideas all of the time? Of course, not. I get wrapped up in my own worries just the same as anyone else does. I am only too aware that I cannot solve a single solitary major problem in the world and that can quite easily lead to not even wanting to acknowledge that they exist. I am frequently asked for money and, more often than not, I am unable to give even small change. And there is no way in the world that I could respond to each request that comes my way. So what's to be done?

I think the most important part of the story in the blog is not that she gave a man a hamburger. I think the important part is that she recognized their common humanity and reached out to him. Even without the sandwich, the impact would have been there just in looking at him, smiling at him, calling him "sir". Giving him the recognition of his dignity as a fellow human, a brother. Every so-called bum on the street once had a mother who cradled him. Somewhere along his path something went terribly wrong but that innocent child still is there. Every cranky old person once had a vibrant young life full of promise that has been buried by time or tragedy. Every lonely person sitting in a theater had dreams of vital connections that never came their way. And that is the person we should acknowledge, respect and, if possible, reach out to. Even if only for a moment.

Did the lady of the blog permanently change the man's life? I guess that depends on what sort of change one means. Is he still homeless? Most likely. Will he be eternally grateful for the hamburger? Probably not. But in that simple interaction, several lives were impacted by her small, kind act. The man had a small amount of dignity restored to him. The woman, with problems of her own, was able to see a connection. Her children witnessed, what I am sure will be, one of many examples of how to be with other people. Many people read the story and forwarded it through the internet. And I felt compelled to write about it. Quite an impact from a trip to McDonald's.


Laura said...

Thank you for hitting the nail on the head.
You got it.
I have stumbled upon some not so kind comments, and it amazes me.

My children were never in danger. TRUST ME on that one. I am not out to solve the homeless crisis. I am not a Saint. I see MANY homeless. I always DO close my window. But THIS TIME, I didn't. And it changed me. I saw myself in this person. And it touched me. CHANGED me.

I have had people question my own financial state since I am paying for art classes and happy meals...I have had people accuse me of putting my kids in danger...and all I can think is "THIS is what they came away with? really??"

this is the risk of blogging I suppose. These people dont me. And all they have are my words. And that is fine, really. That is OK.

But how great it feels to read your post...because you DID get it.
I am not out to change the world..I may never help another homeless person again..and I did not offer this man food thinking that my children would benefit from seeing their mother do such a thing...
and I certainly did not write this thinking that it would circulate around the internet the way that it has.
But it has.

It was a moment. A connection. I gesture that made me feel good. A morning that got me thinking. That is all.

I wonder what Roger would think about all of this????


Anonymous said...

I've been told that I'm foolish to give them money because they might be panhandlers and not really need it. That's true. They might be. But I know for sure that a very tiny percentage of them are panhandlers and most desperately need it. It's not a pleasant thing to have to do. How can I tell the difference and how could I risk not giving a couple dollars to someone who desperately needs it to prevent being panhandled for a dollar or two?

I know from a nurse who was a student of mine several years ago that a substantial number of them are veterans of different wars who never got help for PTSD. She herself was an Army nurse during the 1991 Gulf War and now treats returning wounded and traumatized. She keeps extra money with her all the time to hand it out because she definitely feels connected to them.

I learned to speak to them when I was waiting at a stop light and a woman got off a bus, walked to the island where I was waiting, and opened out a cardboard sign. It said something about needing help to take care of her children -- and she looked frightened to be there. I looked directly at her and gave her a few dollars and told her it wasn't much, but I hoped it would help some. She immediately started apologizing and told me that she does work, but had medical conditions that prevented her working full time and it just wasn't enough to take care of her children. So I said a few more words to her about hoping she could find some way to make ends meet, but in the meantime maybe this would help.

On the parking lot of a supermarket one day, I was going to my car and I saw a young girl talking to an elderly man while he put his groceries in a very large SUV. She looked like any of my students at the university, clean, dressed like them, and she seemed on the verge of tears because the man didn't even acknowledge that she was there. I think it would have better if he had yelled obscenities at her, but he totally ignored her as if he couldn't hear or see. When he left, she visably changed -- her shoulders sagged and she looked totally dejected. She saw me and asked if I would listen to her -- not help her, just listen to her. I heard her and saw her, unlike the man before, and told her of course I would as soon as I got my bags in the car. She told me she had lost her job and gotten into a bad financial mess, but she had found a new one and would start in a week, but she was about to lose her apartment. She was just hoping she could enough money to pay her rent and not lose everything she had until she could get sorted out. I gave her a couple dollars. I'm sure that wouldn't pay her rent, but again she was a different person. Her face brightened and she was as happy as if I had given her diamonds and was profusely thanking me. I had to finally tell her she needed to go find someone else and try to get some more money.

Another former student felt the same connection mentioned in Laura's story. She was going home one evening, in the winter, and saw a homeless man trying to make a bed in a doorway with a cardboard box. As she looked at him, she suddenly saw her father in this stranger. Luckily, she had an expensive light blanket in the trunk of her car and gave it to him. She said that since that time she always keeps an expensive blanket there for precisely that purpose -- she couldn't get over seeing her father's face in that homeless stranger.