What do you do when you see someone in need? Are they really in need? How can you tell? Does it matter? On Wednesday night, Meredith and I were leaving the parking lot of the local Kroger, finally heading home after a long day of shopping in prep for family coming over on Thanksgiving. I don't know about you, but when I spend more than three hours in two different grocery stores, my mental capacity and emotional stability begin to slip back to grade school levels. So, needless to say, I was ready to be home!
As we were taking a right out of the parking lot, I saw a man standing on the corner, holding a sign that read "father of four, please help", while two little girls sat on the ground, playing by his feet (seemingly quite content and for the brief second that I saw them, both were smiling as they played). Our conversation ceased for a moment, as we both saw the family, looking dingy and used, begging for help on the corner. I didn't slow down. I was instantly a jumble of feelings. I was frustrated, empathetic, angry, ashamed, and feeling sorry for those two little girls who are getting paraded around as bait for a few sympathy coins. Regardless of the apparent truth in their predicament, the kids, I thought, should not be used. What is this teaching them, that their situation is ok? Because, its not, it is anything but ok.
The topic of poverty is obviously a complicated one, rife with political strife, the squeeze of the middle class and racial undertones (or overtones) (to name a few of the more obvious complications). I don't pretend to know the answers, and I don't pretend to think that we can solve the problems easily (if at all), but I do know that we can choose how we behave, and take responsibility for our actions. So back to the car...
Meredith spoke next, about a block away... "I have cash"... I didn't answer right away, but clearly, I was still driving straight.
"We're not giving him cash" I say, and I keep driving. Meanwhile, the blood in my veins has started to boil at the whole situation. Why doesn't he have a job? He can obviously stand there for hours a day, and hold a sign, so why can't he lift a paint brush? I'm sure he could figure something out. Does he make more money begging on the street than he would working manual labor, or a crummy job some where? Does he have substance abuse problems, or mental issues? Is he actually homeless, trying to care for himself and his children? Does he really have four, I only saw two? Is he a victim? Am I a complete ass hole for assuming the worse? Does it matter that I judge, or does it matter what I do? Am I blaming the victim? It seems so easy to blame him, yet its just as easy to blame the situation/system/circumstances. So who takes the responsibility? How can he pass this legacy on to his kids? How can he turn it around... damn! damn! damn!... these were just some of my thoughts.
Another block away, I ask Meredith, can we cook him and his family a big home made meal and bring it back? Yes, she says. We continue home, and after unloading the groceries, Meredith prepares a big meal, as well as some canned goods, and other stuff that we don't need, and I bring it back.
I really wanted to ask the man, "whats your name? whats your story?", and as I drove back, I pondered how I would deliver the goods... a quick roll down of the window, and hand him the bag? Or do I park, and get out, and shake his hand? I decided that I wanted to shake his hand, and feel out the appropriateness of asking his story in that moment. I wanted to know so I could put a face with a name, and a soul with a story.
They had left. They weren't there, and I couldn't give them what we made for them... I was bummed.
Did I fail? Should I have just rolled down the window, stuck out a dollar bill, and hand the cash off? I don't know his name, I don't know his situation, and I don't know if I'll ever see him again. I wish I would have acted faster.
If there is a next time, and I'm fortunate enough to see him again, at least I'll be prepared, and know what I want to do...
What would you have done?
ps: Happy belated Thanksgiving, it is moments like this that remind me of how much love I have in my life, and how truly rich that love makes me... and it's always a good thing to give thanks...