I don’t know if that day exists or not, and if it does, it probably is not February 5. But for today, I want you to bear with me and assume that it is, because I want you to come with me on a quick journey. It won’t be long, and it won’t be painful.
I know I said (on my About page) I would never do political posts. This isn’t really a political post. In my mind it is a humanitarian post. But some may perceive it as a political post. If you, dear reader, are one of those people, and you know my politics and disagree with them, please don’t let that stop you from reading on. Because this really isn’t a political post, I promise.
I just woke up from a dream. I wouldn’t say this post sprung from my head fully-formed, but I will tell you that as soon as I woke up it started composing itself, and I knew I would never be able to go back to sleep until I got it down on virtual paper. Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about my dream. But the dream sets the stage.
In the dream, I had just coordinated the release of a prisoner (????). The handoff was to occur at a mall that I happened to be at (????) with my wife being the person to hand him off (????). She got him out of the car, motioned him my direction, then tossed me the keys for his handcuffs (????).
If you looked at this man, saw him in real life, “prisoner” is not the word your brain would have pulled from wherever it pulls such things to describe him. The word that would have appeared in your head would be “homeless.” He was in his sixties, long, dirty gray hair, red flannel shirt, dirty pants, beat up, worn shoes. He walked toward me in a manner I’ve heard described as the Thorazine Shuffle. (If you don’t know what I mean, Google Thorazine and apply critical thinking.) Most important was the look on his face. Sheer despondence. Utter hopelessness. This man had given up on life. Not in the way a hospice patient might. More in the way of someone who has had the very worst day of his life, only it was about the thousandth consecutive such day.
I asked him if he had a place to go. He nodded. I asked him if he had a way to get there. He shook his head. So I pointed to the mall’s Info Desk, which was right there and which also sold city bus tickets (of course it did, this was a dream after all). I overheard the lady at the desk as she rung up the cost of the ticket. It was over three hundred dollars.
I immediately reached for my wallet without thinking, then stopped myself. That is a lot of money, and while I could afford to part with it, I felt like I shouldn’t have to, and that it wasn’t my responsibility to do so. So I put my wallet up and started to walk away. Then I looked past the man to my wife, who mouthed to me, “Pay it forward. It’s only money.” Something, I’m proud to say, she would tell me in real life.
And then I woke up. There, dream over. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
This, of course, got me thinking about the homeless, not as a societal problem, but on the micro level. And here’s where I need a bit of audience participation. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read your answers out loud, and you don’t have to turn them in at the end of the period.
I’d put money on the fact that at least one person who reads this (assuming Facebook does its job and draws people here) will pass a homeless person today. Maybe it’s a regular, at that intersection every day. Maybe not. Maybe it’s in the city, maybe it’s in the suburbs. I guess it could even be out in the country. Those of you who won’t pass a homeless person today, well, you’ve seen them before. So you can picture them your head. I’d like for you to do so now.
Never mind why that person is there. Mental illness? Drug addiction? PTSD? Laziness? It doesn’t matter for our purposes. You can ascribe a motive if you really want to, but that’s not the point of this exercise and I don’t think it will factor in to what I’m asking of you.
Now, picture that person. Look at him (or her). And let me give you some background. (“Wait, you said ‘No motives’ and besides, this is my figment, not yours.” “Yeah? Well, the background I’m painting is universal.”) That person has a family. They may or may not love him; they may or may not know him. But somewhere, some time, a woman gave birth to that person. The next time you see an adorable little baby, your homeless person was once that baby.
Do you have children or are you around them? Do you remember what it was like to be a child? The boundless optimism? The innocence? Even a child with the worst upbringing is still a child, and still clings to the child-like hope that things will get better. Children dream. In their mind, they can be anything. Have you ever met a child who wanted to be a homeless beggar when he or she grew up? I didn’t think so.
Your homeless person might be a mother or a father, a sister or a brother. At one time, at least, they had friends, and I’m willing to bet that at some time in their life, they positively impacted another person, perhaps without even knowing it. We all do. Even the most damaged of us. Someone, at some time, loved them.
Now, look at your homeless person again. Don’t think about why they are there. Think about this (and apologies to my wife because I am stealing this thought from her; consider this attribution): whatever their situation is, whatever their history, whatever their personal demons (or lack thereof), that person is at a point in their life where the best thing they think they can do, the best use of their time, is to go out on a street corner or in a subway station and beg for money. Their options may be self-imposed, or they may be because of circumstances beyond their control. But look at that person and think about the fact that this is the best they could come up with. And think about how degrading it must feel for them. How degrading it actually is.
There is a family out there who is wondering where that person is. There is a family out there that has given up on this person’s problems, is tired of trying to help, but still loves him and is still worried. That family could be your family. That person could be you.
Because that person is a person. A member of the human race, just like you and me. That person was someone’s child once. That person once had dreams. That person once would never have thought they’d end up where they are now. That person and you may be different in almost every way, but that person and you both have shared certain universal human experiences. Love. Friendship. Joy. Loss.
So next time when you see that person in real life, I would like for your mind to go back to this fictional homeless person. Think about everything I’ve described about the fictional homeless person applying to the real homeless person. Because it does.
You don’t have to roll down your window. You don’t have to give them money. You can ignore them. You can shake your head when they walk by. All of the above describe my behavior almost every time, so trust me, I am not preaching at you. I’m right there with you. But I promise you that I will think of my fictional homeless person, too. And even if I do nothing for them, I will have compassion for them. I will send them my love as one human being to another. I hope you will do the same.
It may not make a difference in their life. But it will make a difference in yours.