I just drove by a man with a sign that simply said "HUNGRY". I wasn't in the lane next to him but one away, as I waited for the light to turn green in San Rafael where the homeless problem has gotten noticeably worse in the past few years. Part of me was glad I was one lane away, another part of me wanted to get him in the car and take him to get something to eat. As I was having this second impulse the light turned green and I felt a deep pang in my chest as I drove off leaving his disheveled self there on the corner.
I don't want that man to be hungry. That is the absolute, bottom line truth. I don't care why he's on that corner or what brought him to the state that requires him to beg for food, money or alcohol. I don't want him to be hungry. I don't care if he drinks every penny he gets, sticks a needle in his arm, or smokes 10 packs of cigarettes a day I still don't want him to be hungry. I don't want anyone to be hungry in this world, and no one has to be. Not when we have the abundance we have.
But the truth is, there was a time I didn't care, or at least I didn't want to care. When I moved to San Francisco 25 years ago in order to deal with what was a theretofore new and slightly harrowing experience, I told myself that it didn't matter that I wasn't giving money to all the people begging on the street because they were addicts and that was their choice by not stopping the behavior that got them there in the first place. I was ignorant, and thankfully I no longer think like this.
No one wants to be homeless, poor, disenfranchised, begging, dirty, helpless, or addicted. Being an addict is not fun. I do know, firsthand. Thankfully my addictions haven't taken me down, but they easily could have. I know people just like me that have ended up on the streets for crimes they didn't commit. Meaning they've had rough lives and haven't been able to cope and the bottle, or the needle, or the road was a better option than trying to fit into a narrow definition that society gave them of what's acceptable. I'm done judging them because I know it's not their fault. None of this is our fault, necessarily, but it is all of our responsibility.
There are many issues in this world. We all are fully aware at this moment in time how overwhelming it is to try to change our own lives to make them what we want them to be let alone solve systemic issues that feed and fuel the inequality of basic human dignity. Obtaining healthy food, clean water, basic shelter, affordable health care, and meaningful work should be part and parcel of our society's ground rules for all, not just the privilege of some "lucky" ones. And yes, there are people in this country who don't want to work, who take advantage of the system, and who are "lazy", but know this, those are symptoms of a much larger issue that we are, on the whole, not paying attention to. People pay a price for those behaviors because at our core we all want to contribute, it feeds the core of healthy self-esteem, and some simply can't for one reason or another.
I personally feel the pain of those who do not fit in, who can't figure out the world, and who've not been given the basic tools in their upbringing to navigate the rules and structure of this society. We humans are nature itself, yet at it's core, our western culture is deeply disconnected from the fundamental cycles of the natural world. We've heralded a direction that takes us away from what informs and governs our instincts and protects our innate connection to the earth, both of which are imperative sources of information for ongoing survival. Instead, our mind-based way of being, which has been developing over the past 400 hundred years, has all but split us from our true north. We think, therefore we think we have it all figured out. Thank you, Rene'.
What we are missing, what the key ingredient is, is something the Dalai Lama has been teaching since before we learned his name. That ingredient is Compassion. He says, "From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes." The truth is, we need each other. All of us, we all need each other. Not just the ones we choose, the ones we like, that ones that don't stink, or the ones that play nice. We need every single one of us that exists here on Planet Earth and they need us. We are all in this together, and just because certain people control the resources and have the power doesn't mean they are justified in determining who gets to live and who should die.
I've learned over these years that we will not solve the issues of our world with hatred and condemnation. I've tried it. It really doesn't work, for any of us. Exerting negativity toward those we think should be different than they are is both futile and exhausting.Compassion has helped me to see that old adage, "there but for the grace of god go I". Any one of us could end up in dire straits in some way. We could have a health crisis that renders us immobile or unable to work. We could become addicted to prescription painkillers due to an accident or have no retirement and therefore have to live in slum conditions. We might grow up without parents to love us or lose a spouse that supports us and our children with no recourse. There's endless other scenarios that do actually happen to people, every day, that leave them on the street with a sign that says "Hungry".
So, what I'm really pondering here is this: How are we going to respond? Perhaps the action taken, or the lack of it, isn't entirely the point. I'm suggesting an alternative attitude, an inner shift, which allows us to see all others as human beings that are deserving of a kind word, thought or gesture no matter what their personal circumstances happen to be. Ultimately, this requires us to be willing to feel whatever is in the way of that compassionate response in order to allow it to surface. I know for me, that is usually some sense of guilt that I'm not doing more, and perhaps, in being willing to feel that guilt, I am.
Mellie, Thank you! Yes, compassion is critical to our well being. It creates the capacity to care, to break out of our modern slumber. It is not OK for people to be hungry, especially as you note with the degree of abundance which exists in our nation. Yes, may a pang of guilt or resonance or compassion well up inside of us and make some internal movement. In our disconnection from nature and loss of an inherent sense of inter-dependence we are all becoming hungry and will suffer greatly.
Here’s a poem along these lines.
SPARE A QUARTER?
They come to you.
Almost a whisper.
Sorry to bother you.
Sometimes a dog is by their side.
A frayed cord leash,
Limp, loosely attached to collar.
This dog isn’t going anywhere.
He has no place to go
and he knows it.
Sorry to bother you,
Can you spare a quarter?
Soft eyes and a weathered face.
A face spent too long
with no place to go.
I walk by.
Muffled to the request.
Protected by layers of indifference, or fear.
I pretend not to hear,
no place to go.
But he insists
The call sinks in.
My heart wakes, stretches, and pulls the brake cord.
Put my hand in my pocket,
And fish for what I can give.
I recognize something
in his face.
He smiles a soft smile.
I turn away.
Only later do I wonder what his name was.
A man and his dog
Looking for home.
– Jose Enciso
Excellent, thank you Jose…