My first memory of encountering a person who appeared to have no place to live was during my first year of college at UCLA. A man was sitting outside a mini-mart, his legs crossed and his hair long. He looked tired, and his clothes had stains on them. Feeling pity for him, I went into the mini-mart and purchased a turkey sandwich on wheat.
“Here,” I said as I handed him the sandwich. I beamed with Warm Fuzzies for Doing a Good Deed. “Take this.”
Because I expected him to thank me for My Act of Generosity, I was dumbfounded when he started yelling at me with contempt: “A sandwich? I don’t want that sandwich. I don’t like turkey, and I have an allergy to gluten. If you really wanted to help me, you’d buy me a meal at an all-you-can-eat place. What am I going to do after I eat a sandwich? I’ll still be hungry. At least I can get another plate of food at an all-you-can-eat restaurant.”
“OK,” I said, my cheeks burning with shame. He had a point: All hungry people prefer all-you-can-eat food to what now looked like a pathetic turkey sandwich. I took the rejected sandwich back to my dorm room.
My dining companion and I were seated at a long table that looked out a large window. Across the street was a man who we often saw in the downtown shopping district. He often carried a unrolled sleeping bag on his shoulder while talking and growling to himself. His clothes were soiled and too big for him. The soles of his shoes were falling apart. He didn’t have a beard, only uneven facial stubble. His eyes were light, and his face was dark from smears, smudges, dirt, and dust.
“He doesn’t look well,” I said to my dining companion. The man was sitting on his rumpled sleeping bag on the sidewalk while engaged in an animated conversation … with no one. Sometimes he leaned back against the side of the building and puffed on a cigarette.
“I wonder when he last ate,” I wondered aloud.
“Why don’t you buy him something to eat?”
“Because he might not want that. Some people feel shame when people just give them food. They don’t like that other people think that they don’t have enough money to buy food for themselves. And I don’t even know what kind of food he wants. When we’re done eating, let’s go over there and ask him.”
As we approached him, his posture was relaxed, and he was about halfway through his cigarette. His clumpy hair was falling into his eyes, and everything he was wearing was soiled. He was engrossed in a conversation, occasionally making a point with his right hand.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He continued talking.
He stopped talking, turned his head, and looked at me. He remained still as the swirls of smoke from his cigarette defied gravity with ease.
“Hi. Do you want some food?”
Another tendril of smoke dissolved into the night before he answered: He shook his head no.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded yes.
I smiled and waved good-bye. I heard him resume his conversation as we walked away.
In retrospect, I should have introduced myself and asked him for his name. And I wonder if, next time, he will be hungry and accept an offer of food.
Sometimes we believe people are so different from us. How could there be anything similar between that guy talking to himself and sleeping on the street and me? What do I have in common with that guy wearing dirty clothes and carrying a sleeping bag around?
Well, we all share the wish to be treated with dignity. We want people to acknowledge us, our presence, our existence. We want people to see us as equals, not less than. We want people to show us respect, to see us as people who have worth.
Maybe you see someone in your daily commute who sleeps outside or doesn’t seem to have any money. Maybe it’s someone who sits against a wall with a sign asking for help.
What would it be like if you said hello that person? Or made eye contact with that person and smiled? What would it be like to acknowledge that person as a person? What’s gotten in the way of you doing that in the past? What is the worst thing that could happen if you tried that? What’s the likelihood that your worst fear in this situation would come true?
What would it be like if we said hello to everyone in our communities? Because aren’t these individuals who sleep outside and talk to themselves part of our communities?
Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.
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