Monday, January 30, 2006

Choosing to Feel

Last night I was on the subway heading to a friend’s house to watch a movie when a defeated, sad and down trodden man entered the train. As soon as he got on and cleared his throat to say, “Ladies and gentleman…” I knew what was about to happen. My first reaction was to pretend I couldn’t hear him, look away or start an involved conversation with my friend sitting next to me. But I couldn’t shut out his sad story of homelessness and HIV and his plea for help. It burned in my ears. He recited a poem he wrote… an attempt to differentiate himself from all the other panhandlers and earn what little change those on the train would share with him. It was about being homeless, the struggle of getting on the train and knowing what people are thinking and doing when he gets up to recite his sad monologue. I’m human, so I couldn’t help but feel for him. I had no change. All I had was a box of Mrs. Fields cookies I was going to pawn off on my friends. I asked my friend if I should give him a cookie and she looked at me without saying anything, and I could tell that neither of us knew if that was appropriate. So I did nothing. He walked by me and out of my life. Inside I felt a little ashamed that I didn’t do something. It wasn’t the first time.

Does the city make you hard? Or is it life? Does the daily repetition of homeless people on the subway cars begging for money make me immune to their unfortunate circumstances? It certainly shouldn’t, but at times, I feel like it does. How many times have I averted my eyes or gotten annoyed when I hear the “ladies and gentleman” followed by a rehearsed story, or felt compelled to do something but done nothing? Probably too many to count. How many times have I inadvertently passed judgment, thought that they should go out and get a job like the rest of us, or put up my hand to say no when they come by shaking a paper cup with change in it? I don’t like this instinct I have to doubt the validity of their situation, to look away and ignore their pleading eyes. In my heart I often wish that I could give each of them money to buy dinner or find a way to get them back on their feet because it isn’t right for people to be homeless. It doesn’t sit well with me that I do nothing, and yet, my meager offerings are not going to change the world, change his situation, incite him to action or seek for a better life. My quarters may allow him to buy a cheeseburger at McDonald’s and prolong his life one more day so he can go through the same routine the next day on a different subway for different commuters.

Occasionally, someone will get on the train and perform to earn their dollars and cents, and I have contributed to their earnings. I feel validated in throwing in my loose change when I feel I have been entertained because then at least I know they worked for it. I can go on my way feeling falsely satisfied with my mediocre contribution. I wonder if that is a fair judgment to make… that one man gets the privilege of my change over another because he had a guitar or could carry a tune or because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Usually those are the ones who have shoes on their feet and don’t look as though they have ever missed a meal. So why should they get my quarters over the man who has holes in his shoes and is probably wearing every article of clothing he owns and looks as though he hasn’t eaten in 6 months?

At times I wake up from my zombie state and realize that I have hardened myself to the world around me. I saw a homeless man in the subway a few weeks back who was hunched over and mumbling. It was rush hour and the train was coming. He had a cane that was lying on the floor by his feet, which had no shoes on them. I could not see his face or hear what he was saying. For a quick second, I thought I should see if he needed help. I slowed down, people passed by me, passed by him and then so did I. I was nearly in tears by the time I got on the train. Partly because I did not do anything and partly because I make the choice every day not to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so, but it doesn’t reflect well on my character. I am overwhelmed at times by the sadness and suffering in the world. We live in a great country of economic prosperity, and yet, we still do not take care of our own.

It is not my responsibility to fix the wounds of the human race, but it is my responsibility to be human. And to be human means to feel and be compassionate. No, I can’t feed the entire homeless population of New York, and I don’t have enough to change to give them all a little something. I can’t invite them into my home or give them a job, but there are things that I can do. What I cannot do is pretend that those people who are in need do not exist. I cannot think that somehow they are less important than I am or that it’s just too bad for them. I cannot take for granted the blessings I have in my own life. I can be grateful for what I have and share my good fortune with those who need it. I can use my spirit to lift the spirits of those who are broken. I can be human… and feel.

So often we turn off our ability to feel because it becomes too much to deal with. Our hearts would break daily under the weight of the world. But not feeling doesn’t make it go away. Not feeling only limits our ability to utilize the unique characteristics of being human and relating to the rest of the human race. Disconnection is the root of contention, fear, oppression and power… all things I hope to never become personally familiar with. There is no rule that says it is right or wrong to help people. But in our souls, we know what is right. Roosevelt said, “If I had to choose between peace and righteousness, I choose righteousness.” So do I.


Stephen said...

they like drugs and that what they use our spare change for.

nikki said...

Stevey: Always the cynic.