“With his right hand he pulled what was perhaps his entire world of possessions… just a small rolling black suitcase. I couldn’t help begin my mental exercise; thinking about the possible reasons for his situation, but something moved me and I felt guilty for my rejection.”
For years now, every time I see someone who is homeless or a panhandler, I wonder how that person or family arrived to that point in their life. In my mind I hypothesize: medical bills, drugs, inaccessible housing, wrong financial decisions, or perhaps a veteran; until I run out of possibilities and get distracted by something that takes my sadness away.
Recently, I was out with my daughter running errands. She is the youngest of my three children and the mother to my only grandson. At one point though, I had to wait outside in the car for her and after waiting a couple of minutes a stocky short man in his fifties came up asking for money. I dismissed him over my shoulder to avoid eye contact, like many of us do. He walked away rejected by my coldness. When I looked in my side mirror I saw him dressed in a black suit and a black coat over his left arm — a contrast with the 90-degree weather, where I was wearing shorts and sweating under the shade. With his right hand he pulled what was perhaps his entire world of possessions… just a small rolling black suitcase. I couldn’t help begin my mental exercise; thinking about the possible reasons for his situation, but something moved me and I felt guilty for my rejection.
A few minutes later my daughter was back. She got in the car and we drove down the street. Approaching a stoplight I saw him waiting to cross the street. “Here give it to the man in the black suit” I said as I handed her a bill. As I pulled up near the sidewalk she called him over. When he bent down to look through the window I encountered his eyes. I felt in that encounter, his blessing and appreciation were different from other beggars. As we drove away I began weeping. I couldn’t explain to my daughter or myself why. As she rubbed my back while I drove, she tried to suggest in different ways what it might be that I was feeling, including empathy and sadness.
That night, while lying in my bed, I tried to find an answer to my feelings. I then remembered a story a priest from Boston had told the congregation about a group of college students helping at a local homeless shelter. All the students had agreed that their greatest fear was one day becoming homeless themselves. At that moment I recalled the story, my heart felt that more than empathy, it was fear — not for me, but for not being able to provide for my family — my three children and their mother. I couldn’t even think about it without feeling sad and anxious. It was not about me. I am sure I could find my way. I remember seeing them when they were toddlers and teens, and imagined the world pulled from under their dreams, my sadness became overwhelming. With a sweat I woke up and my heart pounding 100 miles an hour. I had fallen asleep. I carried this fear since they were young without knowing it or at least, without acknowledging it.
I then realized that a great part of my motivation for working, schooling, savings and most of what I have accomplished has been because of that fear. Do I still feel empathy for the homeless? Yes. Do I still feel fear? Perhaps for life is unpredictable and capricious, but now that I have confronted my fear, I can work on it and be grateful for what I have and not for what I fear.
“I then realized that a great part of my motivation for working, schooling, savings and most of what I have accomplished has been because of that fear.”