15 February 2011

Compassion

I'm flummoxed when I encounter homeless people. I was raised with the idea that money given to the homeless is just wasted on booze and drugs, or that somehow people need to earn money, not get by on handouts. My parents do not have hearts of stone, nor did they ever explicitly say such things to me, but somehow I managed to become a young adult who felt saddened by the plight of those who had nowhere else to go yet stymied by their seeming inability to better their situation.

My thinking on this has progressed. Now, I'm mostly simply sympathetic. I mean, who wants to ask people for money and food to survive? But I'm not here to preach about how we should all be more charitable or engage in debate about giving money to panhandlers. Homelessness is a complex issue, and people can make their own decisions about what they can or can't do to help. I'm here to tell a story about compassion and parenting and about the kind of people I want to raise Maddie and Riley to be.

I took Maddie to the grocery store with me on Sunday afternoon. Riley stayed home with my dad, so it was just me and the Mads. I really enjoy the times I get to spend with either Maddie or Riley one-on-one; it's a rarity, and something I should be more mindful about making happen. As Maddie and I walked down the sidewalk to the store's entrance, I saw a man sitting out front, makeshift cardboard sign reading, "Homeless and hungry, anything helps" propped against his knees. "That man doesn't have a home," said Maddie, in the matter-of-fact way of a four year old. We've seen enough people with such signs and she's asked enough questions that she knows what's going on.

We went in the store and did our shopping. The guy was still there on the way out. "Would you like to give that man some money, Maddie?" I asked, on a whim. She lit up. "Oh! Yes! Then he could eat something!" I handed her a dollar and she took it right over.

"Here you go," she said, extending the money.
"Thank you, little one," the man kindly said in return, with a huge smile.
"I hope it helps a little," I added, somewhat lamely.
"It sure does. Take care of your beautiful family," he said.

And with that, we were off. Maddie clearly felt like she had changed the world. She talked about how next time, we could just buy him some food while we were in the store and give him that instead. Or how maybe some of the people who don't have a place to live could come stay at our house, or how we could give them some of our sheets and blankets.

I don't have an answer to the problem of homelessness, but I can say that it made both me and Maddie feel good to make one small gesture of compassion. I don't care if that guy spent that dollar on an apple or on cheap beer: he's doing the best he can, sitting there in the rain with his sign, and if that dollar helps, I'm glad to have given it. And I'm glad for Maddie to see that little acts of kindness matter, and for me to be reminded of this, too.

John was always the first person to open his wallet in these situations, and his generosity changed my thinking a lot. I am not often clear about what specific things John would have done as a parent, or about how I can honor his presence in Maddie and Riley's lives. This is one area where my footing feels sure.

22 comments:

Keith said...

I often think ethics are about what I do, not what others do, but usually that's in a context where "others" is someone more powerful than me. This was a good illustration that I'm sometimes the more powerful one, and the same principle probably applies then, too.

Alexandra said...

I appreciate your post on homelessness and being open about your changing thought process about it through your life. My father is homeless through a series of unfortunate events as well as debilitating mental illness and he is in no way, shape or form an alcoholic or drug user, in fact, he has never had either. That said, he also has some semblance of a network that allows him to live off the streets, but a lot of that network ends with him living in Mexico where is social security check can go significantly further than here in the US. Even this comment makes his life sound better than it actually is - hey! he get's social security! - but in all seriousness, it's tragic, horrifying and there's not a lot that anyone can do to assist other than be compassionate and treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Thanks for sharing your story of yours and Maddie's interaction with the man outside your local grocery store. It means a lot.

jmb77vol said...

I was looking for a button to click "like" and then realized I wasn't on FB. :^) Great post and even greater story.

Peg said...

What a lovely story. I am suprised every day about the lessons my children remind me of with their open, innocent views of the world. Great post!

Peg said...

What a lovely story. I am suprised every day about the lessons my children remind me of with their open, innocent views of the world. Great post!

Michèle Hastings said...

until a family friend's son became homeless i never would have understood the many facets of homelessness. it has made me become more compassionate. children come into this world with no bias.

Gina said...

I have become much more generous and compassionate since I had children. I think it is that I now always think of people as they might have been as children - everyone was once someone's baby. If, god forbid, one of my children should be in that situation someday I would hope that someone would show them a bit of compassion.

Christina said...

When I was 9, a couple of homeless guys came to our door asking for money. My mother told them our garage doors needed washing, and if they would do it, she would buy them dinner. She packed me and my brother in the car to go to buy them some food, and when I asked her why she was doing that, she said it was because everyone deserved a chance.

When I asked her what would happen if they robbed our house while we were gone, she only said she would be "very disappointed". (Bulletin: They did not rob the house.)

It's safe to say I never thought of poverty-- insofar as a suburban 9-year-old had ever been thinking about it-- the same way again.

carosgram said...

What a great lesson to teach your daughter! It never hurts to be kind and you never know just what the consequences will be. But learning to believe in the goodness of your fellow man and the world is a wonderful gift. Thinking of you and wishing you the best

liz said...

This post made my heart thaw out today.

Bejewell said...

This is so lovely. What better way to honor his memory than to instill a sense of charity and respect for others in your daughter? It warms my heart.

Christine said...

I always feel torn on how to "help". I mean really, giving someone money (which I've done) or buying them food (also done) may or may not help the person in the long run, but I guess it helps ease my sense of guilt, if you want to call it guilt.

On the flip side, going to law school in what was only a few years ago one of the most dangerous cities in America and walking from the train station right near a methadone clinic hardened me up a little too. Once I bought a guy a sandwich, soda, chips, etc. from a truck and then he asked for the change too (and in not a particularly kind way)...and well I kind of wanted to kick him in the shins. I guess it just goes to show that obnoxious people are everywhere.

Another time, I used to do AIDS outreach in college, I recognized one of our heroin addicts begging for change near the train station. I didn't have money (college, man), but I had a bag of popcorn and junior mints that I had for some film presentation...I offered them up and he took the popcorn but refused the junior mints. His face of revulsion when I offered the junior mints still makes me laugh to this day.

Good for you for raising some empathetic kids.

ayladybug said...

Thanks for sharing your feeling of "they'll just use the money for booze and drugs" - I always have the same reaction but like you aren't sure where I got that. Just recently though, I gave $10 to a man on the street that holding a sign that said "Everybody needs a little help sometimes." I don't know if it's just because I'm pregnant and hormonal, but it really struck me and I teared up a little when I passed the money out the window. Isn't that the truth?

Mama Mama Quite Contrary said...

That's lovely. Just lovely.

John said...

I agree that was the right thing to do to show your daughter to be compassionate. Like you said we don't know that guys situation. He could just be down on his luck.

Don't feed the poor they'll breed! Hmmmm, is that right? See my post by clicking on my name above.

Anonymous said...

I love this...

OTRgirl said...

This post resonates SO much with me. Growing up where I did, I mostly knew the people who were begging. I never gave money, but I knew the social services system and could ask if their needs were being met. Much of that changed when crack came onto the scene and the resurgence of heroin also swelled the homeless population. I'm now more likely to give someone money than I used to be, but if nothing else, I treat each person as a human being and meet their eyes and say hello.

I love that way of honoring John. Maddie's reaction is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

It is so important to teach our children that in this world we need to take care of each other. I try to take my children along whenever I'm out doing for others. I hope that my children will grow up with compassion for other people. We recently were blessed with the opportunity to collect items for Project 50/50. They are awesome people who travel 50 states in 50 weeks (all while living out of their truck) helping the homeless and hungry. You should check them out either on facebook or the web. They are coming to your area in May. :)

Sam said...

My mom never gave money, but gave food, or clothing, or old blankets/towels. it's nice to feel like you're making someone's day have a bright moment.

Shannon said...

Re: the they might buy booze comments. I've always thought that, but was really struck by a comment from Father Hesburgh (former president of Notre Dame) that I read somewhere. He had given a homeless man some money, and the person he was with made a similar comment. Fr. Hebburgh responded (I'm paraphrasing here): I'd rather be taken in by 99 people than miss the one person who really need help. Now, I'm not sure I'd go that far (I probably couldn't stand be taken in that much), but that comment has always stuck in my mind when I see people asking for help: what if this is the one? I'm glad to see you're teaching your children the same compassion.

kyouell said...

I've been knitting scarves for Special Olympics, and as we come upon the end of the season I've been wondering what I'm going to do with the leftover yarn (there will be new colors next year). I planned on a scarf and hat for each kid, but I'll still have leftovers. Now I know what I'll do with them. I'll keep making scarves and always carry a finished one that I can give away. Thanks for the nudge to my noggin.

We were saved from homelessness a while back by generosity from my parents and my MIL. I know how close it can be and can no longer worry about what my donation may be used for.

One tip for the wary: carry some ones or your extra change somewhere other than your wallet. Then you can reach in your pocket or whatever and pull out what you're giving them without flashing your license or credit cards. Or the $20 that you need and can't afford to give away.

I totally agree with the comment about meeting their eyes too. When I was little the people with signs were at freeway on-ramps and they were looking for a ride. My grandma made a point about telling me to look them in the eye and shake your head "no" instead of pretending not to see them because that's someone's teenager. I had 2 uncles and an aunt that were of the same age and I knew she was thinking about how she wanted her kids treated. I apply that same thinking to homeless people now.

Elisabeth said...

Great story - exactly the sort of thing I will want to teach my son when he is old enough.

I have tried several times to articulate what my mother taught me about treatment of the homeless when others have said they were just going to spend it on alcohol. The comment by Keith says it so simply and maybe the best when he said, "I often think ethics are about what I do, not what others do" I agree 100%.

Great post!