What if you do a good deed, if your intentions are to help and instead, you end up enabling a bad habit, one that goes against your principles?
I was standing in line at the 7-11 with my Slurpee. The line ahead of me was short, but the cashier was slow and so I waited behind a big, black man and a homeless man for quite a while.
The black man had an Australian accent and was wearing a sports jersey. He was holding a turkey wrap in one plastic box and had another plastic box full of fresh fruit.
The homeless man was young, white, slender but muscular. His beard and hair were dark blonde and kinky-curly—exactly like my son’s hair and beard when he let it grow a bit. He was wearing faded pink volleyball shorts, inside out with the tag looking like a tiny tail, and avocado green and black striped trouser socks with the toe part stretched out and dragging on the floor.
The black man said something to him about the socks—I couldn’t hear it all, but it sounded as if he were cautioning the young man about the need to change his socks often so he wouldn’t get foot fungus. He also said something about healthy food, like his turkey wrap. The young man looked keyed up, but he was polite, said something I couldn’t hear in response.There was a little more conversation which I could hear little of, but it seemed to center around ways to stay healthy. Maybe the black man was a doctor.
When it was his turn to pay, the black man put his plastic boxes on the counter and then said to the homeless man, “Anything you want, man.”
The clerk waited, the black man waited and then homeless man pointed at the display of cigarettes behind the clerk. “The short ones, please.”
After a few minutes in which the clerk picked out the wrong cigarettes, the homeless man pointed and repeated that he wanted the short ones, the clerk picked up the wrong ones again and the homeless man corrected him again, finally the homeless man got his cigarettes. After the clerk rang up the order, the black man paid for everything and then, he shoved the boxes of fruit and turkey wrap still on the counter toward the homeless man and walked out of the store.
My husband, waiting outside in the car, was incredulous that the homeless man had checked out before me. It seems that when I went into the store, the homeless man was outside, searching in the garbage from the laundromat next door and in the dumpster for cigarettes. He found a couple of butts and then Bob said a security guard who came out of the 7-11 shooed him away.
I am sure that the black man, who wasn’t in the store when I arrived, came to the 7-11 to pick up something for lunch and he saw the homeless man outside and wanted to help him. So, he offered to buy him something in the store. From their conversation, I think he thought it would be food, something to tide the guy over for a while. But, cigarettes? From the way he pushed his purchases toward the homeless guy, I think he was disgusted—maybe with himself, maybe the homeless man, probably a little of both. He still wanted the guy to have something good and he wasn’t going to go back on his word, even after the guy picked something not good. So his compromise was to pay for everything and then to give the healthy stuff to the man along with the bad.
We want to help, but often, we want to help in a way that will truly help, not enable more destruction. So, we attach expectation to our help and judge the person who will receive it. They don’t have to show gratitude, but we want them to meet us halfway—to be willing to make their life better. And sometimes that is not their choice. And the next time you have the opportunity, you don’t help because you don’t trust that person to make the right choice—your choice. It’s a conundrum.
If the black man had known that the homeless guy would choose cigarettes instead of food, would he still have offered to help? Would he have found another way—maybe bought food and brought it out to the man. He chose to give the homeless man some dignity—bringing him inside the store and giving him a choice, not just buying something and handing it to the man outside the store. He tried to make the homeless man’s life a little better and that makes me a little sad, because it had to have felt like a small failure. In his day to day living, will the black man reflect on this past experience to tell him what to do in the future? It’s something he’s going to remember.
And the homeless man? His life is all in the present, getting what he needs at the moment from the environment, which includes people. I don’t think he will reflect on this past experience. He might not remember it. He lives in the moment. Living in the present, isn’t that what philosophers say we all should be doing?
Not a meeting halfway, not a meeting of the minds, not really a connection with a fellow human. And that is often the way help is received—just take it and run. And it’s often given with expectation. Two different paths going in diverging directions. It wears out the givers and is only a brief moment in time for the takers who have endless need. And so it goes.
It's been nine months since my last post--time enough to gestate and give birth if you're a human, enough time to completely remodel a 1,500 sq. foot home both inside and out. Every square inch of that square footage. Time enough to almost complete the cycle of seasons, but not enough time, apparently, to train our thirteen pound terrier to stop resource guarding when we are the resources she is guarding.
It has also been time enough to complete the first draft of a new novel and to begin the process of editing which I love. Really, I do love it. Polishing the jewel, tweaking words, sentences and phrases into place, expanding, cutting, changing it up--I love all of it. This is the way I choose to give birth. And this novel is all about birth. What if you could communicate with a little human before it was born? Know its likes and dislikes, its needs, the things that frighten it in its limited world? What if you could help prospective parents and their child through the process of development and birth? Would you want to?
What must it be like when you finally do the thing you were born for? The thing that is part of your very DNA. I saw this in action a few days ago when my Lakeland Terrier found a gopher hole. Lakies are bred to hunt vermin; to dig rats, foxes, badgers out of their dens and kill them. Cali is almost two years old, and until we moved to a house with a yard, her idea of grass was to fly over it in pursuit of her Frisbee.
A couple of days ago, we saw a few piles of dirt in the grass and Cali noticed movement in one of the holes next to the dirt. Like a bullet, she flew out of the house and fetched up against the closest pile of dirt. She began to dig furiously, pausing only to poke her nose down into the hole or to place an ear close to it. When I came up to her, she backed up, paws splayed on either side of the hole and froze into guard position. The look on her furry face was one of total focus and the energy coming off her was full of purpose. She looked…transfigured.
I thought, later, that must be what it’s like to find what you were born for and to be able to do it, at last. To have a purpose that feels like destiny, like finding the puzzle piece that fits exactly, like being whole. Wouldn’t we all want that feeling? To experience it, even vicariously through your dog is a gift.
Cali stares out the window, waiting for the gopher; she digs in every hole she sees and tracks dirt into the house; she’s almost as obsessed with gophers as with her Frisbee. I guess obsession is the flip side of finding your purpose, but it still looks good to me.
I write for a newspaper. I write to tell stories that might otherwise be forgotten. I write to process my world..