My entire life, I have avoided confrontations with the “homeless”, the “mentally deranged”, the “wierdos”–you know, those who are not like me. I judged them as having made their own misery in many ways. On the other hand, their pain and needs were such a raw bottomless pit that it scared me out of my mind.
I refused to be involved, to be associated with “them.” I pretended they did not exist. Or at least I pretended that I did not see them.
So when I noticed him moving towards us, with his unshaven face and rumpled clothes, I walked a bit closer to my husband and kept my eyes glued to the sidewalk.
“Do you have some spare change for me?” he said.
“Sorry, Bud,” my husband said. “I don’t.” I instincitvely grabbed my husband’s hand and quickened my step. But I felt the man’s eyes staring at me, and I finally lifted my face.
“Do you think I’m gonna hurt you or something?” he asked. “You go grabbing your man’s hand for dear life like that… I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“Oh no, that’s not it,” I fumbled. “It’s just… you know, I wanted to hold his hand.”
He smiled a toohtless smile.
“Well, you two have a good day now,” he said. And he walked away.
I never even thought to ask him his name. Or how he was. Or why he needed some change. All I wanted was to put as much distance between him and I as possible. Pretend he wasn’t there. Pretend he didn’t ask. Forget I blew him off.
My stomach lurched with guilt.
And thus my heart began a brand new journey.
So maybe human misery is a bottomless pit, but it does not excuse me from valuing each life. So maybe human misery is the consequences of choices, but it does not excuse me from treating people with respect.
This man in the heart of the city, he needed to be recognized as a person, just as I do. Valued as a human being, just as I do. Bur I did not even give him that dignity–I acted as though he was an inconvenience. A threat.
How would I feel if someone let me know they thought I was an inconvenience?
This homeless man in the heart of the city and I, we aren’t much different. We share the same struggles, hopes and joys. The same longings, hungers and sorrow. We have a shared humanity.
The difference between him and I is that he knew he needed help, and I did not–until he showed me I did.
So maybe I cannot help the bottomless pain of poverty, but I can look at those less fortunate in the eye and let them know they matter. And maybe I can make a sandwich or two if I am afraid that my change will be spent on alcohol.
And if nothing else, I can smile.
The homeless man did.
Shared humanity indeed.
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