Every once in a while, you have one of those “Aha!” moments that make you stop and consider how your perspective differs from reality. Or at least you should, if you’re paying attention. Stephen Covey called them paradigm shifts.I’ve never agreed with the statement “Perception is reality.” In fact, it makes me cringe. Perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality. Show me a perception-is-reality-ite, and I’ll show you someone whose mind is closed too tightly, and whose mouth, chances are, is opened too loosely. The good thing about paradigm shifts, or changes in how we perceive the world, is they indicate we’re paying attention to what’s happening around us. When the world we see doesn’t look or behave as we expect it to, we are faced with a decision: we can change our mind, or we can ignore the new info. We can grow, or we can remain stagnant.
I had a recent change in my perspective, and it was more than just a little humbling. I recently went back to
The opportunity didn’t materialize as we expected it would, and as we were heading home after closing down the bar that night, we passed a man sleeping on a bus-stop bench, flanked by two shopping carts piled head-high with, presumably, all of his worldly possessions. I half-seriously suggested that we stop and offer him a bag of chips that Raquel had inexplicably saved from lunch. After a bit of discussion, we decided that waking up a homeless man at two a.m. to offer him an eight ounce bag of potato chips was probably not entirely safe, much less charitable.
The next day at church, one of the scripture readings was the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the one—the Jewish guy is walking down the road when he’s attacked by bandits, left beaten, naked and half-dead by the (cue the ironic coincidence) side of the road. A priest walks by, sees the man and crosses to the opposite side of the road. A Levite (a member of the tribe of
Raquel and I looked at each other, the parallel between the story and the homeless man from the night before was too great to ignore. After church we went back to the place we saw him the night before. His shopping carts still stood watch on either side of the bench, but the man was nowhere to be seen. I suggested we go have lunch, and come back afterward. When we returned, the man was pushing his carts down the sidewalk. I approached him, told him that we’d seen him sleeping there and asked if there was anything he needed.
“Money,” he promptly replied. I have a bit of an aversion to giving homeless people cash, assuming that there’s probably a reason they are homeless, and, more often than not, it has something to do with some form of addiction. This man had some obvious problem—he was unsteady on his feet and shaking, and the only word out of his mouth I had been able to clearly understand was asking me for something which could, presumably, be used to fuel an addiction.
I asked him if he was hungry, and told him we wanted to get him some food. He said he was, and tried to tell me where he was going. I had to ask him to repeat himself several times, and finally understood his gesturing up the road and mumbling something that I thought sounded an awful lot like “bar” meant he was going to be somewhere to the south when we got the food.
At this point, I knew there was something wrong with him. His shaking and general unsteadiness, combined with his almost total incoherence did little to dispel my alcohol or drug problem stereotype. Even though I thought it unlikely that he was drunk—it would take a lot of booze to become so smashed that one could barely walk or talk, and I smelled not a hint of liquor on him—I didn’t dismiss the idea. In hindsight however, his mannerisms were probably more likely caused by some neural disorder. He kind of reminded me of Ali lighting the Olympic torch a few years back.
Raquel and I drove to the grocery store nearby and spent about 20 or 30 minutes picking out non-perishable, easy to cart items that we thought he might enjoy. We also threw in a gallon of water because we figured that it isn’t that easy to find clean water when you live on the street. Then we drove back to where we last saw him and started south. I told Raquel that I thought he said he was going to be at a bar in the direction he had pointed, but admitted that I probably had some unfair preconceptions that might have led me to hear what my mind expected to hear. We headed in the direction he pointed, looking for two looming shopping carts.
Raquel saw them first. “There they are. In front of that bar.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, incredulous. As I found a place to turn around, I was simultaneously amused and annoyed to be helping someone who obviously didn’t want to help himself. Here we’re spending the time and money to try and give him even a little help, and he only wants to drown his troubles in alcohol. The more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. By the time I pulled up beside the sidewalk in front of the bar where he’d parked his shopping carts, I had talked myself out of even walking inside to get him.
You see, I didn’t like the idea of the other bar patrons judging me for helping out a drunk. I considered just driving by and not even bothering with the food, but I reasoned that whatever the cause of this man’s current situation—disease, drugs or bad luck—God calls us to help others, regardless. It isn’t up to us to make the distinction between those who deserve our help and those who don’t. Just as the Samaritan probably didn’t think that an Israelite deserved his mercy, compassion or, for that matter, money, but helped him out anyway, so we should help out those we see in need, so long as it is within our ability. No matter their worth. All this was going through my head as I pulled alongside his carts. But I still didn’t see a need to go into the bar to get him. “I’m just going to leave the bags beside his carts,” I told Raquel.
All this was going through my head as I pulled alongside his carts. But I still didn’t see a need to go into the bar to get him. “I’m just going to leave the bags beside his carts,” I told Raquel.
“Nah. Who’s going to steal food from a homeless guy’s shopping cart?” I asked. Besides, I reasoned to myself, there’re windows in the front of the bar. He can probably see me dropping the food off. And, come to think of it, do I really care if someone steals it?
As I was getting back into the car, the apprehensive look on Raquel’s face told me that she wasn’t satisfied. “Do you want to go in?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The man introduced himself as the owner of the bar. “I watch out for David, and anytime I see someone messing with his stuff I get a little concerned.” I told him I understood and asked if David was inside. As I walked in I found him relaxing by himself at a table in the middle of the bar—drinking a Pepsi.
My immediate reaction was nothing more than to think, hmm, I guess I was wrong about him. But the longer I dwell on it, the more uncomfortable I am with my previous assumptions about the man. I realize now that I wasn’t helping David, so much as he was helping me. Sure, I’ve seen my share of homeless people uninterested in honest assistance out of their predicament, but it’s as unfair of me to assume that every person who lives on the street is a junkie or alcoholic as it is for those whom I choose not to throw money at that I’m a heartless, greedy bastard.
I don’t know what ails David, though I’m guessing he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He was genuinely appreciative of the food we gave him, though it ultimately won’t change his situation. It would have been too easy to assume the worst, based on my bias, and write him off as someone who “deserves what he gets.” It would have been too easy to drop off the food, and driven off without learning the whole story—and in the process, to become a little more cynical.
Kudos to Raquel for being genuine enough about her religion to believe that we are put on this planet to serve God and serve others—and for making me believe that’s a good thing. Her generosity is a product of a genuine love for God, rather than a fear of hell, or a pursuit of veneration. Her generosity lacks the ulterior motive of forcing its recipients to conform to her views. It is generosity for generosity’s sake.Kudos to the bar owner (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, and whose establishment’s name I never knew) for walking the walk that he talks. As I dropped the bags under David’s cart, I noticed something written on one of his bar windows: “Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.” As this bar is about two miles from the front gate of a rather large naval activity, I wasn’t surprised to see this sentiment stenciled on the front of his business. But I was surprised, I’m ashamed to admit, to see him acting out a similar attitude by offering David an air-conditioned retreat from the steamy Florida July, and a cool Pepsi to sooth his parched throat. They say you can judge someone’s character by how they treat people who have nothing to offer them in return. If that’s true (and I think it is) then this man’s character is beyond reproach.
I guess God truly works in mysterious ways. Raquel assumed that her penance would involve an act of charity that would ultimately help out David. As we were leaving, she wondered if her penance was fulfilled, as she felt I did all the work. I assured her that it was, since I certainly wouldn’t have done any of that on my own. We’re a great team, after all. But her act of charity wasn’t for David. It was for me.