My sister told me once when she was driving home from work, she had a box of free donuts next to her (she and I, like many shameless others, are greedy suckers for free food). There's this one homeless man she'd recognized on the streets pretty regularly on her commute from city to suburb, and this time, with that box of donuts next to her that she unarguably did not need, she'd determined to give it to him.
But when time came for her to roll down the window and give that box of food to him, she didn't do it. As soon as she passed him, hands glued to the steering wheel in front of him, she broke down, and that's how my mom received her on the phone minutes later–in tears and practically unintelligible. (She was actually genuinely freaked out hearing my sister in such a distraught state, thinking some sort of disaster had occurred.)
When I first heard the story and then relayed it to my best friend, I received and retold it with amusement and a few chortles here and there. And my best friend agreed, yes, it was actually quite funny in retrospect, especially if you personally know my uptight older sister (and the fact that she was on her period at the time). But then, she said, with wrinkled brow and concerned visage, that my sister had had good reason to cry.
It was sad.
And after that, I started noticing. A couple of my friends in college would stop a car full of people to provide the bus fare a ragged old woman was requesting at an intersection, or fish some granola bars out of a backpack to give to a young man begging for food. Once I noticed the man in front of me stop to wave over an injured man with a sign, standing in the rain, to give him an unopened bottle of water.
The majority of people do not fall into that sparse category of three or four individuals who would open their windows to give away something of their own to a complete stranger who may or may not actually be in need. And I think many people are scared to give and scared to roll down the window to someone who isn't immaculate and presentable and "normal." I can't say I'm not one of those people, because I am. I've had a pack of M&Ms or a box of leftover (and absolutely delicious) truffle fries on me before, innocuously sitting in the passenger seat, but I never even made a move to press the button and reach out to a stranger. It's such a simple gesture. Press a button, reach out a couple feet, make barely any contact to someone on the street, hear a "thank you" or "bless you."
Why is it so hard?
My dad, like my sister, is uptight and operates primarily out of caution. He doesn't like to take flyers from people on the street, he tries not to make eye contact with strangers; he frequently interrupts a seemingly just fine moment with "WAIT. Careful, careful–". (My poor dad is often the butt of family jokes precisely because of his extremely cautious nature.)
I grew up with that very American mindset that people who are homeless have reasons behind it.
Like perhaps they didn't work hard, or they chose that lifestyle (sounds crazy, but I've actually heard of people who do prefer living without a home), etc. etc. But life isn't black and white like that. Sometimes misfortune befalls someone all at once, and Murphy's law just strikes without mercy. It might be a veteran stripped of his/her government promises post-war, and cumbered by multiple injuries; or maybe it's just a victim of a seemingly spazzing economy.
But here's the thing. I decided yesterday, it doesn't matter if these people begging–for lack of a better word–for just about anything someone could spare to give them deserve that generosity, if you could even call it generosity (because what's so generous about giving away leftovers, right?). I don't think it matters if that person on the street is actually homeless or not, is someone who was struck by misfortune or caused it himself/herself. How is anyone ever going to know or truly judge if someone "deserves" a fellow human being's kindness? Probably never.
In the end, I believe it's your own willingness to break the seal, the stigma, and reach out for that very first time, that actually has a place in the debate of what "matters" and what doesn't in the grand scheme of things.
Chances are, if you do it once, you'll do it again, and again, and then, at some point, you will end up giving something to someone who does indeed deserve a little bit of kindness anyway.
Each time I made no move to help out someone emitting a specific and obvious plea for help, I was left thinking about those 20 seconds of pointless internal debate for hours after. (By the way–this is the grand result of those cumulative hours of pensive thought and self-beating-up.) I've resolved, next time I'm in the car with some presentable food, snack, and/or drink with me, I will give it to someone who seems to need it more than me. I will make eye contact (NO you wouldn't dare, my dad would say), roll down the window, and reach out to hand over something that's mine to someone I'd possibly never ever interacted with before in my life. I'll probably feel so much better after. It'll probably make my day, and chances are, it'll make that stranger's day too.