The choices we make when misery confronts us on the street have repercussions beyond the change in our pockets
by Cathy Allison
ast week I passed a man lying on the ground near the public library and the memory of him troubles me still. I think he was sleeping, but what if he wasn't? It was the middle of the afternoon, he was curled up face down in the doorway and I did not stop to wake him, to ask if he was sick or to offer help. I was pushing my daughter in her stroller on a sunny Saturday and I walked right by him as if he were invisible.
I wanted to stop but there were many reasons why I did not. I was afraid that he might be angry at being disturbed, that he could be mentally ill and might harm me--that I was powerless to really help him.
We live just steps away from the ocean in Vancouver, BC, one of the most affluent and beautiful cities in the world, and yet when my daughter sits at her play table coloring by the window she can watch the street people picking through the garbage bins in the lane-way below our apartment. Every day we see the same men picking through the refuse, sometimes climbing in with the filth and stench to scavenge food and items we have thrown away. I know the day is coming when she will ask, "Why Mama?" and while I will try to answer her question, neither one of us will be satisfied with my explanation.
I used to give money away before I had a child and we became a one-income family that counts our pennies so that I can mother our daughter full-time. Whenever someone approached me with their tale, I would give them the change in my pockets and a wish for a happier life.
My husband was angry with me sometimes, telling me I was being scammed and I know that there were occasions when their stories were just that--stories. But somewhere in the lie there was simple need and I tried to give freely without judgment.
Bombarded daily with the pain of the world through the media and by watching the people living on the streets of my city, it is distressingly easy to become numb to the suffering. I remember hearing an anecdote about Mother Teresa that was so profound it moved me to tears. Someone asked her how she could bear to work with starving children when the sheer numbers of them were so overwhelming and she had absolutely no hope of ever feeding them all. She considered the question carefully and then answered, "I do it not to change the world, but so that the world doesn't change me."
I want to find that same sense of purpose within myself, to accept that while it is not possible to change the world and I cannot save everyone, it is possible to live a life where I can be true to myself and my values without becoming discouraged. Even the smallest acts of kindness count.
As I watch the people hurrying past the poor, pretending not to hear their pleas for change, food or jobs, I worry about what is happening to their spirits. I think a tiny piece of one's humanity must die each time we fail to acknowledge the need of another.
What troubles me most are the parents who pass by with their children. They are teaching by example and the lesson is one that fails to respect the dignity of each person and does not recognize the responsibility we should all feel for each other.
I am ashamed that last week my daughter saw me pass by a person in obvious distress without stopping to offer a helping hand. I do not want her growing up believing that it is acceptable to ignore another's misery, even though we live in a world where anguish has become commonplace.
I am a mother now and my mind is often filled with "What ifs": What if my child were one day on the street. What if life is unkind to her and she has no place to live and nowhere to turn for help. How would I want passing strangers to treat her?
So when I walk by panhandlers and they ask me for money and I have no spare change, I look them in the eye, smile and offer them an apple, a sandwich or a muffin. Now that I am a parent it seems as if I carry a portable grocery store of snacks everywhere with me to feed my growing toddler. I know that if my daughter were hungry, I would want someone to feed her. It isn't much, nowhere near enough, but it eases the ache in my heart a little.
Cathy Allison is a freelance writer and fulltime mother who lives in Vancouver, BC.
- If it's all a little overwhelming, you might want to pick up a copy of YES! a Journal of Positive Futures. So often when we read about the problems of this world it seems like we can do nothing. YES consistently shows ways in which you as an individual can make a difference. One of the most thoughtful magazines available.
- You can donate food to the hungry with a simple, free mouse click by going to The Hunger Site. You have time to click once a day, I assure you, and it's free and painless.
- To learn more about homelessness, start at the National Coalition for the Homeless page.