Before you buy that venti blended Frappuccino, take a second to think about what you might do for someone else today.
For most of my life, upon my arrival home I empty my pockets of loose change and put it in a jar. I wait until the jar fills up and then take it in to one of those cash-in machines at the local supermarket. I usually just keep dumping it in until it irritates me—or overflows—and it results in my saving anywhere between $40 and $100 in change. While getting dressed recently, I spied my change jar on the dresser. It wasn’t full, but for some reason I felt an urge to cash it in.
Pulling up at the supermarket, I exited my car, and hit the alarm remote. It was a busy morning, and as I took in the people bustling towards the entrance, I heard a man’s voice. “Sir!” the voice said. “Sir? Can you spare some change?"
I glanced toward the sound and laid eyes on a young, homeless man seated in the shade at an outside table. His eyes were locked on me, and I took a look around. He had no belongings, and his shoes were in tatters. I kept walking, and I was about to enter the store when our eyes broke, and I heard, “Please?”
Please. A word of request, but it was more than that. It was said at a pitch that rings with the unmistakable sound of longing, desperation, and truth. I didn’t look back at him. Instead, I continued into the store. In that instant, I had rethought my purpose for being there—with a complete shift in what I needed to do. I cashed in the change: $12.51 cents. I made my way to the deli and bought a whole, BBQ’d chicken and a large water. The cost: $10.32. I brought it outside.
I could have given him the food and said something trite like, “Here. This is for you. I hope this helps,” and gotten on with my day, thinking I was a Good Samaritan and that I was special.
No. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not anymore.
I sat and present this man his meal, and I put my hand out to shake his saying, “What’s your name?” He extended his filthy, dirt-caked-under-his-fingernails hand and I gripped it with respect. We greeted each other, as men do, and we talked. His name was Keith. He’s 32. He was disowned by his family and has been on the streets, homeless for over five years.
And now I know why the Universe had brought me there today. I know why I took a quarter-full jar of change and ended up at a grocery store on a busy morning. I know it's not about me.
I told him I was happy to help ease his hunger. He volunteered to me that he doesn’t do drugs, but he drinks—a lot. With that information, I was instantly made aware that he has consumed a few drinks that morning.
He was busy devouring the chicken. Grease and sauce smeared across his lips and cheeks—a clear reflection on his moderate drunkenness and his level of hunger. I asked him to look at me. He complied, and I smiled. He smiled back with chicken in his teeth, and I told him very matter-of-factly, “You are drinking because you are escaping. Maybe you're escaping pain... or fear... or your situation. The problem is that you will eventually sober up, and reality will smack you in the face—and then you'll drink again. If you want out of this cycle, you would need to choose something else.”
His admission: “But I’m addicted to alcohol.” And I nicely fired back without pause, “But you’re aware of it. With that awareness comes responsibility: You are no longer a victim, unaware of your situation. Now that you are aware, you are an active participant. You are choosing death, not life.”
Silence from Keith, staring down as his chicken.
Me: “What do you do for a living?”
Keith: “I’m disabled. The left side of my body was crushed in an accident.”
Me: “That’s not what I asked you. You just labeled yourself. I’m asking you what your last job was.”
Keith: “Um… clerical work.”
Me: “There are plenty of physically-challenged people who work clerical.”
Keith (after a pause): “So, what are you saying? That I’m using my handicap as an excuse?”
Me: “Absolutely. You can sit here, begging from others… or you can get busy doing something different. Choose something different. You can live.”
Keith locked eyes with me.
Me: “Look, man… I get it. Life dealt you a rough hand. Bad family, accident, life-changing injury, homeless—I get it. But you know what? F*ck that. You are in-charge of your life, and your choices are yours, and yours alone. You can do something else. This isn’t the only life you can lead. We choose the way we live. We decide our way of existence. I’m asking you do choose something different. And I know that to choose and do something else is harder than what you’re doing now. But isn’t a different life filled with something better an improvement over this? Does this life make you happy?”
A sad look and a pause.
Keith: “I thought God forgot about me.”
Me: “God can't help you if you sit on your hands. And right now, it looks like you have forgotten about yourself.”
Me: “There are people who will help, Keith. Here I am. You don’t know me from anyone, and I’m here. The question is: What do you want to choose now?”
We spoke for a few more minutes, and I asked him to remember me. He promised he would, and further promised to investigate one of the shelters, to reach out a friend, and to see what he could accomplish by changing his current behavior. I hugged him, shook his hand, and we parted ways. When I walked away, although hungry, he wasn’t eating. His chin was balanced on his hands. My hope is that he was considering what we discussed; I hope he finds his way.
I realize that this experience could be viewed as either nosey/pushy (me getting involved with a man who might not want my views/opinion) or opportunistic (in that I did it, and now I’m writing about it). Let me address both of those viewpoints. Firstly, I got involved because that’s what I do. I don’t do it to feel good about me, I do it because I must. Black, white, rich, poor, angry, happy—I get involved with others to make a difference for them. Secondly, I’m not writing this to get compliments/kudos on my actions. While I would appreciate your thoughts, my ego is fine; I don’t need validation or strokes. :)
I'm writing about this experience in attempt to snap others out of complacency... and to perhaps inspire others to get busy acting, instead of sitting on the sidelines, observing. We all have opportunities to make a difference for others—giving up a seat on the bus, smiling at a complete stranger… everything makes a difference. With $10 in change, I didn’t just buy a hungry, homeless man a meal. I [hopefully] gave him hope.
The question now is... with your newfound awareness, what will YOU do for someone else today?