Beggars make me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I am skeptical about their motives. Maybe it’s because I know I can’t solve their problems no matter how much money I put in their hat. Maybe it’s because I know I can’t afford to give them all money. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to even consider the possibility that life can really get that bad…because if it can for them, maybe it can for me too. Maybe it’s because their self-deprecation is just too painful to witness. Whatever the reason (most likely all of the above), I have always either pretended not to notice them or have averted my gaze as I hurriedly tossed them a buck or a few coins, as though doing so is something dirty, taboo, or forbidden…an act I wanted to be done with and pretend didn’t just happen.
Christine changed all of that today.
I saw her by the side of the road begging for money this morning. Her sign said, “Fallen on hard times. Just doing what any mom would do.” But I’m a mom, I thought, and I wouldn’t resort to begging. I’d sell everything I had to keep a roof over my kids’ heads. I’d seek help from the local food pantry or one of the charitable organizations before I’d beg strangers for money. Doesn’t she know about those? Or has she asked so many times that they’ve turned her away? Does she really need the money for her kids, or is she just a drug addict preying on the consciences of good people like me? I pondered all these questions as I drove away toward home. But there was just something about her. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something that compelled me to turn around and go back. I wanted to understand why she was there. For some reason I still can’t explain, I needed to understand.
As I drove back towards her, I started to get nervous. What if I get honked at by the car behind me? What if she doesn’t want to share her story with me? What if she doesn’t speak English? What if she is unappreciative of my efforts or needs more than I can give her? What if it’s AWKWARD?!
Now it needs to be said that I myself have had to tighten the purse strings lately, so I wasn’t really in a financial position to give her much in the way of money, but all of us have something to give away to someone in need. It’s a matter of knowing specifically what is needed. I pulled up beside her and rolled down the window. “Excuse me”, I said, “I’m sorry that I don’t have much to give you in the way of money, but I would like to help you. What is it that you really need? Can I bring you food?” She smiled and told me that what she needed most of all right now were some feminine hygiene products because she had none and was in rather dire straights.
Now look here, folks, it just doesn’t get any more humiliating than being forced to ask a complete stranger to buy you maxi pads. I was overcome with compassion, so despite every safety rule I’d ever been taught, and against all rational common sense, I invited her to hop into the car so that I could take her to the Wal-Mart around the corner to purchase them. (I’m not recommending you act quite so rashly, should you ever find yourself in similar circumstances!) She thanked me, introduced herself and shared her story with me as we shopped. She had a good sense of humor, and we both had a little chuckle about the situation. I offered to buy her more than one pack, but she said no. I offered to buy her lunch, but she said no. I offered to buy her food to take home, but she said that through the grace of God and the generosity of strangers, her refrigerator was full. She asked if maybe she could just have a cup of coffee instead. Done.
I took her back to her corner and her eyes welled up with tears as she thanked me from the bottom of her heart for trusting her enough to invite her into my car, for taking the time out of my day just to talk to her, to listen to her, and to give her back some of her dignity. Then she told me that her two middle school-aged sons didn’t know that she had resorted to this in order to keep the roof over their heads. She said that the worst part was that people thought it was funny to take photos of her as they drove by, and her biggest fear was that her sons might someday see them on the internet and be utterly humiliated and mortified. My heart broke, and it was then that I realized that all my old fears had come true. I hadn’t solved all of her problems. I still had no way of knowing whether her story was true or not, or whether she was a drug addict or not. Her self-deprecation had indeed been painful to witness. And maybe life would be cruel enough to kick me in the teeth someday just like it had her. But none of that mattered. She had given me far more than I had given her…the insight and perspective I needed to finally understand and stop averting my gaze so that I could see the appreciative mom, daughter, sister, friend and fellow human being sitting in front of me. What an amazing gift!
She gave me a hug and stepped out of the car. “You really made my Friday,” she said. “You know what?” I replied. “You really made mine too.”
Only when we look up from our own problems and fears and pay attention to the world around us are we are truly alive. We are given eyes to notice, ears to listen, tongues to reassure and hands to reach out and touch another life and make someone’s day. Such opportunities are gifts. Do not waste them.