Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Power of Presence

I live in a major metropolitan area, and on my walk to work every day, I run across more homeless folks than you might imagine would inhabit these few blocks. My neighborhood is an area that is full of rush-hour commuters, so the homeless tend to drift this way, knowing that there are many sympathetic suburbanites commuting into the city who cannot resist the sad faces and outstretched hands. A woman I work with was wracked with guilt about passing the homeless by without giving them anything, but she didn't want to give money. She decided granola bars were a good answer. She felt she was giving them something they really needed, but could not be mis-used. She keeps granola bars in her purse now all the time.

Being confronted with the unresolvable sorrow of humanity in very small and very personal ways on a daily basis requires one to do some soul searching. Do I ignore these people? Do I acknowledge them? If so, in what way? Can I help? Can I help in a way that doesn't further the sorrow? Can I make a real difference? Can I change the world so that the problem isn't a problem any more? Is it my problem?

I don't know anyone who doesn't have to give these questions some thought. I never give money; to me money is a resource, and I bear the responsibility if it's misused. So, sometimes I give someone food. But mostly I try to offer what I try to offer anyone...the recognition and acknowledgement of their essential dignity and humanity.

I try not to ignore and look away. There is a man outside Walgreens on the corner of Adams and Wells every day, and I always give him a smile and a cheery good morning. It happened by accident when our eyes first met, and he seemed shocked that I didn't look away, but it was all I could offer. A sincere hello. Another human being admitting that he exists and walks fully among us. That he's not invisible. That we live in different worlds, but are part of this same human family.

I was crossing the street one day, and there was a frail old woman clinging to a lampost. She was obviously distressed and confused, and no one seemed to notice including the traffic cop. I slowed down, and she turned and asked me if I would help her across the streeet. To which I did. She took my arm, hobbled across the street slowly, and when we reached the next corner she let go and walked off, balancing herself against a building. She didn't say a word to me, but I thought how lucky I was to be someone whose simple presence could make a difference.

And that experience has stayed with me and crosses my mind every time I see these folks on the street. Some are scary, some sad, some smelly, some desperate, some dishonest in their begging, some hopeless. I think about my response to them frequently, and can only be someone who stays present ~ who doesn't need to disappear into political rhetoric or economic philosophies about what creates such need, but recognizes another soul sharing this planet with me.

No comments: