I did something this week I haven’t done in years – I gave a homeless person $1 as I walked by. I was in a tony part of town, hyper-conscious of having just repaired my Mac computer at the local Apple store, toting a fancy $10 salad home for lunch, wearing a cute coat I had picked up in Paris on my last trip, and looking at my iPhone.
And there he was, sitting on a box, smoking a cigarette, his hand out. And without really thinking about it, I reached into my wallet, handed him a dollar bill, and smiled, and he smiled back and thanked me.
And now I can’t stop thinking about it.
Decades ago, living in New York during what was the height of the homelessness/crack crisis, I told myself that I would not give money to people on the street. Instead, I would do what many people tell themselves they do – I would give it to organizations that help the homeless.
Except I never have. I give money away, but I always wind up giving to organizations that lead the fight around social issues that I care most deeply about, and frankly, homelessness has never quite made it to the top of that long list. I once participated in a rally and march on Washington for housing, but that was more because my boss at the time was involved and asked me to be too.
But I was so conscious of who I was, walking in Bethesda that morning, with all my fancy accouterments, compared with this poor man sitting on the sidewalk, that I caved. And it made me feel a little better about myself … momentarily.
My kids and I have had some conversations about homelessness and extreme poverty. My oldest is very self righteous about how privileged we are, and although he doesn’t do anything in a volunteer capacity about it, he understands. My two younger kids have come to Manna, a local food distribution warehouse for our county, to help pack boxes; we’ve volunteered at the local JCC on Thanksgiving and at local shelters on Christmas. Homelessness doesn’t generally stare them in the face as it did for me when I was there age, living in New York City, but they are vaguely aware and indeed, aware that it is our responsibility to help when we can.
But is any of it enough?
I work in the non-profit sector. I am aware of the extraordinary social problems facing our communities and our society today. I give money. I give time. I try to educate my children about the issues.
And yet, pulling a dollar out of my wallet is definitely not enough. It is not a solution to the problems of the man sitting on the box. Nor is simply writing a check at the end of the year or spending one day a year ladling soup and pretending that having a conversation with a homeless person at the community shelter is a triumph.
But I am also a firm believer in the maxim that every moment counts, every action has meaning, every contribution, no matter how small, has an impact.
How do I reconcile the overwhelming complexity of the problem, knowing that one person can’t really make a difference, with the notion that, in fact, every single person can make a small difference?
As my kids get older, I recognize that I have less and less time in which to impart the vital life lessons I want them to have. I want them to grow up to be empathetic, generous, and true believers in the causes that touch their hearts. I seek opportunities to achieve this goal, smooshed in in between soccer practice, homework and getting dinner on the table every night. I’m never quite sure how much it resonates.
A few years ago, before the older teen had completely retreated to his room, the three kids and I were fans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Every week we’d watch as some deserving family’s home was redone. Putting aside the complicated issues of what happened to the family after the re-do, we would enjoy watching the transformation.
Of course, I would cry each time, thinking of the parents and their incredible struggles. And each week, my older son and daughter would have the same exchange. She would greedily eye one of the children’s redone bedrooms, and announce that she wanted that room for herself. And my older son would get agitated, and chide her, saying, “you know, that’s for a family who has no money. We have money. You’re being selfish.”
She was only 10, so I understood her covetousness. And he was 14 or so, and I was grateful for his understanding.
Today, they’re older, and I’m more consumed by the swirl of work and family life and am thinking less about being mindful of teaching moments. I worry that we’re not doing our part. But what is our part?
Is it giving money when asked on the street, out of a misplaced sense of guilt? Or is it considering more targeted and professional philanthropy, really supporting organizations doing this work? Or is it volunteering? A combination? None of the above?
I’m struggling with my answer. I’m struggling with how to teach my children. I’m struggling with how to live a purposeful and generous life, while still enjoying my iced chai lattes a couple of mornings a week. I didn’t grow up poor, but I didn’t grow up with much to spare, and I admit that I still get a thrill from having some disposable income.
It’s a thorny issue, and one that I don’t expect to answer in 1,000 words. I will continue to parse it, teach my children by example when I can, and enjoy the occasional catharsis of tearing up while watching a deserving family set their eyes on a new home.
But I still am not certain what I’ll do the next time I pass that corner in Bethesda.
Photo by Steve Rhodea via Flickr