“Oh look, they’re selling Girl Scout cookies. Turn around up here.”
En route to home after a full day of running errands, my wife had spotted an awning on the street corner to our left, surrounded by several girls in uniform and a woman seated at a table in the middle. I immediately turned around to enter the parking lot adjacent to their location. As we entered the lot we noticed a man on the side of the street with a sign, “Homeless. Any help appreciated.” His appearance–ragged clothes that looked lived-in for weeks, long scraggly beard–was typical of the many homeless we often see in Provo/Orem, usually on busy street corners or near bustling commercial centers. We pulled past him into an empty parking space and my wife exited the van to purchase some boxes of cookies. I couldn’t help, of course, gazing over at the man with the sign. We all do that, I think, when confronted with members of our societies that seem out of place, homeless and otherwise. They seem to exist, to echo Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, somewhere within the bare existence of refugees and the utterly Stateless. They seem out of place in our presence, ghosts that fade in and out of existence, rootless, without any real identity that ties them, even loosely, to the rest of the citizenry. And we can’t look away, either out of compassion, or sadness, or fear, or disgust, or anger, or unease.
After my wife had returned to the van I told her that I felt we should give him something. We see people like him all the time and never stop to give anything, I thought. She was a little uneasy at first but agreed. I pulled around to the exit of the parking lot and my wife rolled down her window. Regrettably, we only had a few dollars in cash and these she handed to him through the window. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, accepting the small offering. Unexpectedly, his eyes welled up with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. He immediately turned back around in the other direction.
His words stunned us into silence as we drove away. He was sorry? For what, exactly? His slovenly appearance? Putting all of us in a potentially awkward position by asking us (and others) to stop and help? For not being what was “expected” of a human being born in America? For not being able to get a job? For being a failure? Maybe he was conning us and his conscience was starting to crack?
Of course we couldn’t know. But we said little on the way home. A melancholic stillness had settled within us. Words were both unnecessary and insufficient.
I was left, though, with the nagging feeling that we hadn’t given him what little we had on us at the time in an act of pure benevolence. I needed to do it for me as well, to respond to my own fears that I am at my core self-absorbed, overly confident in my worldview, absolutely morally certain. I needed my children to see me respond in some way, however inadequately, to the plight of another. I feared they didn’t witness that often enough from me. This self-loathing was increased by the thought that only someone with a certain amount of privilege (and the tendency to over-think everything) would be philosophically or spiritually concerned that an intended gift actually be a pure, authentic gift. Nevertheless, these thoughts didn’t arise until after the fact, when I had a chance to calculate and reckon the “cost.”
I’m not sure what could serve as an adequate moral to this story and I’m not interested in preaching or advocating for anything, especially after the ironic and anti-climactic epilogue. I saw another man begging on a street corner a few hours later, this time when I was alone, returning from another errand. I didn’t stop this time. I didn’t have anything to give him, but I knew I probably would not have stopped even if I did. The usual justifications arose in my mind: I pay fast offerings, I serve people in my ward and neighborhood (though also really inadequately), I can’t be expected to try to do something for everyone I see in need, and besides, I gave to another homeless man earlier in the day….justifications that for some reason had not appeared in the earlier experience. Here, the calculating and computing happened immediately.
In the end, we are constantly called to by others, are we not? Rarely do the calls come as explicitly as someone with a sign, asking for help. More often the call originates in the gaze of another, in clouded eyes of pain, or in body language that tells us to stay away, I’m hurt and bleeding. I think we even notice this often, but our hearts usually remain resistant. The sheer amount of need (including our own) with which we are faced when we go out into the world is staggering. Sometimes, though, inexplicably, our hearts break, even if just a little, and no justifications rise up to seal off the cracks and fissures. In those moments responding, giving, reaching out are as natural as breathing. No calculations or reckoning of justice, and later the heart would seal up again, as impenetrable as before. But now–just the simple, bare relating of souls who relate to one another precisely because they share together a familiar brokenness and alienation. One of them, however, had to shed his outer trappings of protective layers, guarding him from a searing vulnerability that makes him uneasy and off balance, the bare existence of a fellow refugee. Underneath, we were both the same, and that fact would remain long after I again took up my protective layers and hardened my heart to the world again.