I read an article on panhandling when it showed up on my friend's Facebook page this week. Panhandling. I don't even want to imagine what it must be like to be so out of options that your only resource is to beg for change on the street, and yet, for many, this is life's reality. This is a harsh, dark reality and I don't want to think it could be true, that responsible, respectable people could find themselves in such a position. So I draw conclusions that the people out there must be irresponsible. That they can't hold down a job, that they can't hold on to their money, spending it on drugs or alcohol and gambling. I'm sure that's true for some, but is it true for all? We don't want to think it could happen to us, or to anyone we know, but it could, couldn't it? Couldn't it just as easily happen to us? It's just too frightening a possibility to consider.
There's a part of town where I'm guaranteed to pass people asking for money on the street. I admit, I'm uncomfortable when I encounter a person holding a sign that reads, "Please Help" when I don't have extra cash in my pocket. It's really hard for me to face that person. I tell myself, "He doesn't know me, doesn't know that I've got my own stuff going on." And it's true, he doesn't. He just sees a person in a car going to work. And I see a person, standing on a street corner, asking for handouts. But who are we that we can't look at each other? What kind of person does it make me that I can pass this person who has nothing, without extending so much as a smile or hello? Is it too painful to look at him without sharing something? The simple answer is, yes. It's too hard to look at this person because if I were to really look, I'd want to change my whole world and see what I can do to help him find work and a warm, safe place to sleep and good food to eat.
I thought about this in the days after reading the article. It made me think about the times I've passed people holding signs asking for help, and felt a great chasm stretching out between us. I don't feel like anything I have to give would be enough. Nothing short of a warm bed, clean clothes, hot food and a job would be enough. In light of that, a dollar in a cup doesn't seem like much. And so I look away.
I suggested on my own Facebook page that maybe money's not the answer. Maybe the answer lies in a simple kindness, like a sandwich or a cup of coffee. My friend said that her daughter used to do that, pack extra sandwiches in the morning and hand them out on the way to work, but people weren't very appreciative. That made me sad for her daughter.
I don't often have extra cash, and I don't really even know if that's the answer. The question for me today is one of humanity, acknowledging another person's presence in this world. If I can look into the eyes of one person, even when he's at perhaps his lowest, even when I have no power to help him cross that divide, if I can offer respect in the form of a sandwich or a cup of hot coffee, or even just a smile - even if he declines to accept, I looked at that person. I acknowledged his place in this world.
Maybe it's as much about seeing a person's divinity as it is acknowledging his humanity.