Do You See Me?

Pencil drawing of a homeless man (by Diane Mottl)

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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

20 Responses to “Do You See Me?”

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  1. Norah Colvin says:

    Hi Diane,
    Powerful piece. I read this after your following post in which you compare reactions on seeing a child with reactions on seeing this older male. I found a lot in common with your pieces; often I have responded in similar ways. Sometimes I wonder if we respond more positively towards the child, in addition to ways you described, because we feel they have played no part in causing their situation, but we pass judgment and blame upon the adult for being in the situation they are. Sometimes too, there may be a reluctance to reach out for fear the situation is contagious. I love the quote you cited from Jesse Jackson “Never look down on anybody unless you are helping them up.” It holds a very powerful message that I must remind myself of often; including, as you say in that other post, the way I look at myself.

    • Thank you for reading both pieces, Norah. After writing this one, it prompted me to write the second one about the child, as I found myself still mulling the issues over. I’m pleased that you found them powerful.

  2. I’ve done the same thing, but I’ve also done the opposite. I wanted to set the example for my children, that we help others. So my kids were trying to help a homeless hungry man. He taught them more than I ever could. You see they were kindly offering their popsicles, unfrozen yet, to him. His response, “Why would I want popsicles when I have ice-cream at home?”

    The second time my daughter had a box of doughnuts and an unopened juice. Upon seeing a man with a homeless/hungry sign, she rolled her window down and offered him her last doughnut and juice. The gentleman looked ready to cry as he blessed her. I think the lesson is valid.

    I’ve only given money to someone once, because she was out of gas, trying to get to Seattle and had a baby with her. I felt guided, and I gave her our last ten dollars… I think it’s a case by case decision on how to react. I also practice the “pay it forward” lifestyle.

  3. Annecdotist says:

    Beautiful drawing, Diane and powerful writing. I’m sure your response is fairly typical of those of us in the West. But it’s quite difficult, because often even charities for homeless people advise against giving to people in the street. I was interested that one of the comments mentioned India where it’s much more accepted that you give to beggars, although there are so many variables affecting the cross-cultural differences. The worst thing, I think, is to let our shame and embarrassment block us from recognising this is another human being. Although I don’t always manage it, I try to remember that, just because they’re asking, I’m not obliged to give (although still difficult to rationalise), but I try not to pretend I haven’t seen them. Of course, they may think I’m a patronising old biddy when I smile and say “no thank you”!

    • Thank you for your comment. I never thought to say “no thank you”. I think I’ll try that with full eye contact and hope it is seen as recognizing them as a human being (and not as a patronising semi-old biddy – smile)

  4. Very powerful drawing. It captures the sentiment of your post and reinforces that this could be anyone of us. The C.S. Lewis quote said it best for me.

    • I’m with you on the C.S. Lewis quote. That is definitely worth striving for but given the complexities of poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, alcohol and drug issues, etc., it is no easy feat. But…we must keep trying. Thanks for your comment, James.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Diane,
    This is some post and caused me to take pause and consider what I would do in the same situation. I have to say, I believe I would have done the same thing. I also practice random acts of kindness but for some reason, when approached in this manner, I freeze. I don’t know if it is fear of what the person *might* do (crimes, etc) or the fact that it bothers me to think, “Is this where we can all end up?” News teaches us to beware of how we interact with others in these situations and I believe, this puts us on guard. I applaud you for sharing this experience and giving us food for thought. Don’t be too hard on yourself as I am sure you have helped many in ways you might not even know. Wonderful drawing, by the way.

    • Writing the post helped me mull it over, so hopefully the next time I’ll handle it in a way that leaves me feeling less in a quandary. Thanks for compliment on the drawing – I was pleased with how it turned out.

  6. Brenda says:

    Here’s another way of looking at it. In our neighbourhood, it is not unusual to see homeless people (or perhaps not-so-homeless people) sleeping behind a garage or digging through the garbage on garbage pick up day. Those digging through the garbage vary in response to seeing someone — some run and try to hide, others give you a belligerent stare, daring you to acknowledge their actions. At other times, we’ve had the chance to talk to some of them, and one day, a recently housed, formerly-homeless man helped us get our car out of the slushy ice on our own street (because the city can’t be bothered to clear them). A couple of our own neighbours were out in their yards, but they chose not to even acknowledge *us*, people who lived on the same street. But this formerly-homeless man chose to help us, because he knew the rules of the street: help others, because your survival depends on it. We had the chance to ask this man about his story, his life, and where he saw himself now and years from now. This was an intelligent, caring, warm human being for whom life didn’t turn out quite as he would have wished it. We gave him $40 for his trouble in helping us, shook his hand, and we went our separate ways. Haven’t seen him since. On another occasion, there was a woman digging through our neighbour’s garbage — it was a deathly cold day. She tried to run and hide when I drove up to our garage, but I convinced her to stay for a minute. I went inside and got a blanket and some winter mitts and such, along with some food, and took them out to her. She just stared at me when I handed them to her, then she bundled them up to her chest and ran down the alley — to where? I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since, either.

    We live in a house, a warm, food- and stuff- and love-filled house, and we are also living in amongst some of the most rejected people of society. A couple of people I know won’t come to our house because they are “scared” of our neighbourhood, and “those kind” of people.

    “Those kind”. How often does that phrase pass through people’s minds? I’m not talking about just the homeless — I’m talking about those “we” deem as somehow “other”. It could be any group of people, not just the homeless or the downtrodden. We discriminate and judge others on the flimsiest of fallacies, just because of…what? Why? I could go on with more about this aspect, but for now, I leave these questions hanging for others to consider: Do I judge others by what measure and for what purpose? Does this judgement say something about them or about me? Why do I do this?

    Thanks for the soapbox, Diane. :)

  7. Kim says:

    You raise some interesting questions, Diane. I’m also curious as to why I sometimes give and other times choose to ignore. In India, I chose to turn a blind eye for the most part because I felt overwhelmed by the number of beggars. How could I give to one and not to the other 5 who would be witness to my generosity? There was one young family living on the street who did not ask for money or food. I was generous in my giving with this family. Was it because they did not ask? Was it because there was a very young child involved? In my very limited view of the homeless in Edmonton, I think I rationalize my times of non-support (had the same experience as you about 6 months ago) by telling myself that we have numerous programs for these people to access, therefore, they should not need to beg unless it is for non-essentials such as cigarettes/alcohol. A very judgmental position to take, and for that, I too, am ashamed. PS. Mother Teresa is one of my role models. Thank you for the quote; it will be added to my personal collection.

  8. Amy says:

    I am guilty of doing the same thing. There’s an area not far from us that nearly always has someone with a cardboard sign. Not long ago it was in the newspaper about a couple that had been caught for claiming they were homeless when they actually had an apartment in town and were doing quite well. So now, it makes me wonder if the ones there truly are in need or not. I want to help others any way I can. Financially, it is difficult because we struggle a lot ourselves, but your mention of charity bags makes me think that maybe we could keep a few bottles of water in the car and hand them out when we see someone there. A small gesture, but something at least. It’s so hard to trust the motives of others, and it is also frightening to see with our own eyes the degree of poverty that can occur to some. We don’t want to think about that happening, I think, because we are so afraid of it happening to us.

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy. I’m relieved that I’m not the only one struggling with this dilemma. Good point about it stirring up our own fears that it could happen to us. More to mull over…

  9. Jan says:

    Wow Diane, this is a very powerful blog. I’ve done the same thing myself and felt the same sort of regret. Hugs for being brave enough to write this very poignant piece.

  10. Leora says:

    Yes this is an outstanding expression of our attitude. Things out of our comfort zone. It brought back many memories of doing some things for people when I couldn’t understand why they had let happen to them what they had or the reason for getting into the trouble they had.
    Some things I will never understand why people will do what they choose to do, however, I have learned to help in given situations for we are all equal in Gods’ site. People do change and it usually takes only one person to really make a change in their lives.

    • I’m with you on the impact that just one person can make. We touch so many lives without ever knowing the impact that our actions/words have. I hope at the end of my life, the positive impacts far out weigh the careless ones. Thanks for your comment, Leora.