Earlier this week, I was pulling to a stop at a busy intersection and a man walked between the lanes holding a cardboard sign asking for change. I am ashamed to say, I avoided looking at him. Hiding behind my sunglasses I watched him in my rear view mirror. All the drivers I could see were staring straight ahead. The man ambled back up the sidewalk, leaned against a building, and waited for the light to turn red for the next lanes of traffic. I drove by him, still hiding behind my sunglasses.
All the way home, I thought of him. It haunted me. What must it be like to not even be seen? To have everyone stare right through you? To not even acknowledge that you are there? That you matter?
Later that night, enjoying a dinner out with my husband, I mentioned the dilemma that I experienced. How do I acknowledge the person without supporting the activity? A part of me did want to give; did want to trust that he really was in need; did want to acknowledge him; did not want to turn away.
But in those 10 seconds that he walked towards me, I flashed back to the time when I gave money to someone who told a story I was convinced was true, only to find out later I had been conned (he tried the same I-am-stranded-story on me a few weeks later). As I watched the man with the cardboard sign draw near, I reminded myself of the research about where money from panhandling usually goes. I reminded myself that I give to charities. I told myself whatever I needed to hear to justify staring straight ahead and pretending the person in the shabby coat, holding a cardboard sign was not really there.
But isn’t that awfully arrogant of me? Assuming that someone who is homeless or in need would be better off going to an organized charity than to walk through traffic asking for a handout? And if I really cared, why don’t I have little charity bags in my car to give out instead of spare change?
So what was it that caused me to dismiss this man? Was I judging him? Did I think there must be another option other than walking through traffic? Or was it not wanting to imagine what it must be like to fall so low in life, that one is forced to walk with a cardboard sign?
I do random acts of kindness quite often. I pay for the cars behind me in the Tim Horton’s drive-through. I pay the few dollars that a person is short on their groceries. I hold doors. I make eye contact, smile and chat with total strangers. I run across the street to catch up to the person who drops a mitten. When no one asks, I help.
But hold up a cardboard sign in your disheveled clothes and ask me for change? I become another person in a long line of cars, that turns away and pretends you do not even exist. I do not see you. And for that, I am truly ashamed.
“Don’t judge someone’s choices without first knowing their reason.” — Robert Tew
“We can never judge the life of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.” — Paulo Coelho
“You can’t judge people and touch their souls at the same time.” — Tama Kieves
“The race of mankind would perish did they cease to aid each other. We cannot exist without mutual help. All therefore that need aid have a right to ask it from their fellow-men; and no one who has the power of granting can refuse it without guilt.” — Sir Walter Scott
“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” — Jesse Jackson
“To give away money is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” — Aristotle
“The proper aim of giving is to put the recipients in a state where they no longer need our gifts.” — C.S. Lewis
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” — Mother Teresa