Appearances

At a busy intersection near the mall I often see a man standing on the medial strip begging for money from passing motorists. This is not your typical out-of-work guy, street person or welfare mother asking for charity. This is a black man who has been crippled and scarred, probably from a fire. His legs are skinny and bowed, a hand is missing one finger and bent back at a ninety degree angle to his wrist; his head is bald and the skin discolored in patches; his mask-like face is grotesque and deformed. He hobbles when he walks and his arms stick out at angles.

When he comes up to my car window and I hand him a dollar, he mumbles, “Sorry to bother you,” and stumbles to the next car. As I drive away I ponder his comment. Did he mean he was sorry to ask for money? Did he think his appearance was so frightening, he was sorry to show his face? Was he being ironic and making a comment on charity?

This incident also reminds me about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawkins who has motor neuron disease (ALS) and can do nothing on his own. In an interview he was asked about his life. He replied, “Who could have asked for more!” When I heard this I was at first astounded. Yes, he had fame, his name would be listed in history, he was probably wealthy, but how could that in any way compensate for the state of his health, his life. I would be asking for a lot more, I thought.

It is instances like this that may cause us to ponder why things happen to people. Is it karma? Is it just bad luck? Is there a way we can act, believe, intend that may keep such a fate from our own lives? This then led me to remember a Sufi story in which a beggar dies in the street while a rich man is passing in his carriage. An angel explains that the whole purpose in the beggar’s life (who was a very evolved soul) was to awaken compassion in the rich man’s heart.

In both the street beggar and the physicist we must be careful not to judge the quality of their lives by how they look, their place in society, the state of the physical body. We really do not know what goes on in each person’s soul, the state of grace they may enjoy, the peace of mind they may have. Before we feel sorry for someone in a mistaken feeling of compassion, we should examine the beam in our own eye.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Who can understand the meaning of life or the depth of eternity? Why is one person born healthy, rich and handsome while another has so little? To say it is karma is a facile explanation but most likely not true. As in the Sufi story, maybe those who in our eyes are less fortunate than ourselves have a different and higher mission that we cannot understand.

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The Good Samaritan

The man down the street answered the cry
of the young man with the child’s mind
who was being bullied by the neighborhood gang
and for his trouble was knifed in the stomach;
now beneath the giant oak with the rope swing
that stands in his front yard under a blue sky
are a dozen votive candles resting in peace
and a poster sized picture of his face
which now smiles down from heaven
where no bullies are allowed and all children
are smart and beautiful and strong and safe.

GENEROSITY

panhandlerOur winter season is alternating between beautiful sunlit days and the fog filled gray skies I wake to this morning. The air is still misty from the overnight rain and as I drive to the grocery store to pick up a few items, the shining wet streets look like slick black ribbons. Few cars are on the road at this early hour but as I slow to stop for the red light at the big Wal-Mart intersection I see standing on the median an old man wearing a shabby pea coat and holding a hand-printed sign.

Begging in the rain is a tough occupation; no benefits nor medical insurance, no overtime or days off. You can, however, make your own hours. It is not a job that I would want. I press the button that rolls down the window and pass a dollar bill to him. His face is gray and needs shaven, his eyes barely meet mine as he takes the money, stuffs it in his pocket and turns away.

The light turns green and as I leave I am reminded of another man I encountered last summer. I was driving through the drop-off at the local post office and saw sitting on the grass under the shade of a small tree four young children. Their father stood a little apart from them and was holding a sign reading, “Will work for food. Please help.”

My throat tightened. I waved to the man to come over and hesitantly handed him a bill. When he saw it was five dollars, his eyes got large, looked directly into mine and filled with tears. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, his head bobbing up and down and his hand quickly and gently touching the back of mine.

As I drove away my heart was filled with gratitude that I had been prompted to give five rather than the one dollar that was my norm. In contrast to other times I had not thought how glad I was not to be in that situation myself; this time I did not feel spiritual.

In this meeting of our eyes the man and I shared a moment of communion. It was a soul greeting that said we both understood what it was to be a parent of children who depended on us and for whom we would do anything – even beg or steal – to keep them safe. The man and I were accomplices in the Game of Generosity in which the giver and the receiver were one and the same.

There was a great joy in my heart that day that I have never forgotten. Now when I hand an offering through the window, I look carefully to see if anyone might be looking too.

SPARE CHANGE

Today on my way home from the library I was driving up Watt Avenue just past the small mall with the big Macy’s store when I noticed a gray-haired woman at least 60 years old standing on the sidewalk holding up a cardboard sign. It read “Need money for medicine – Cancer.” Ah, my heart missed a beat as the automotive caravan rolled by her.

It has been my habit to keep a few dollar bills in the car to hand out on such occasions as this but today I was driving in the third lane over and could not easily segue across two lanes. Just as I was deciding how to maneuver to the far right and perhaps making a turn into the mall parking lot I saw second person holding a sign with the same message – “Need money for medicine – Cancer.”

This second sign holder was an old man – probably her husband – who was sitting in a folding metal chair with a portable oxygen tank with a thin plastic tube running from the tank to his nose. By the next red light I had turned into the parking lot and then drove down the exit road directly beside the sitting man. After pressing the button that rolled down the far window I held out a few dollars. He got up from his metal chair, stumbled over to the car, accepted my donation and thanked me.

I could see that he was not used to this give and take of the street corners for he did not have the smooth “Thank you and God bless” of more practiced petitioners. Rather than the full eyes-on-eyes exchange of war veterans, homeless men or drug addicts, I saw in the quick glance from him, eyes that held embarrassment, resignation and futility.

As I drove back into the mainstream of traffic a sob escaped as I thought, “It’s a good thing we’re in a Great Recession instead of the Great Depression. It’s a good thing we’re one of the richest countries in the world and don’t need socialized medicine. It’s a good thing our politicians are honest and our bankers humanitarians.”

It was clear this elderly couple had once been a part of the now disappearing middle class. They looked like people who had paid mortgages and gone to church and quietly made plans for an uneventful retirement.

What had they said to each other last night as they prepared for today? What had they thought when they used the big black markers to make their signs? And tonight when they go home – wherever that might be – how will they feel when they count the money given to them by strangers? Will this money pay for chemotherapy? Buy another tank of oxygen? Will the medical establishment or insurance companies dole out another day or week of life?

I hope that today they have received much more than the money they requested. I hope that they have realized there is no shame in asking for help and that they are not alone. I hope tonight they will have great comfort in being together and as they go to sleep they will feel they are loved and cared for in this unknowable universe.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,

When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,

Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

 

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;

Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

 

Songs of the Great Depression: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

( I think the photo is by Stiglitzs)