Moments like these, I feel the deep sting of my own limited compassion.
I’ve seen this woman many times before, frail and sunburned, five or more decades of life distilled to a few plastic bags. Usually she’s making her way down the road with a sideways gait, face tilted upwards as she speaks to an audience only she can see.
I spotted her this afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of my favorite restaurant, and before I had enough time to even think in words, the pictures of what COULD be done in this moment flashed across my mind: me greeting her warmly at the door of the restaurant, me asking her if she wanted something to eat, me bringing her a muffin and a cup of hot chocolate, me asking her name.
Those were a few of my options, but I did not take them, not even one of them. “A smile is a charity,” says my spiritual teacher, and yet today I couldn’t afford even that much. Instead I brushed past her without acknowledgment on my way through the door. I took furtive bites of food from my table inside, watching through the window as she poked her way through the patio seating. I looked down at my napkin when I saw her rummage through the trash. Suddenly there were several crucial issues with my fingernails that needed to be examined.
When I finally stood up with resolve to buy the woman her muffin, I found she’d disappeared into the chill of this foggy spring day. Log this moment down in the annals of my failed humanity. Pray I’m given another chance to give my sister her due.
What is it about poverty I find so difficult to look in the eye?
Half my life ago, as a high school exchange student walking up the snowy steps of a metro station in Kiev, Ukraine, I lifted my glance and found myself looking eye to eye with a young mother swaddling her baby in a dirty blanket while she begged for change. I still remember the sharp twist in my stomach when I realized she was the same age as myself, that in fact she was really no different than me.
I blinked and saw a picture of myself two years prior, sitting on top of my duffel bag on a Portland sidewalk. The vulnerability of poverty is only magnified when you are homeless and female and young. The plot line of my life was quickly diverted from that moment by a host of good fortunes: friends and their compassionate parents, a loving and generous community, social services that (kind of) work. Without any one of these saving graces, I easily could have found myself living the fate of this girl: not only the moment of begging with her child, but who knows what circumstances that had left her teenage and pregnant, and who knows what future available from there.
Today I felt that same staggering sensation I’d known almost seventeen years ago, that I am poised on a razor’s edge, on one side humbled by the knowledge of my own good fortune, on the other side aware of my continuing vulnerability. It’s the sharpness of this sensation, the enormity of the knowledge that “there but for the Grace of God go I” — the reality that she is me on another trajectory, the possibility that her fate might still be my own, which keeps me from standing in integrity when I greet someone less fortunate by the measure of this world. It’s like I am paralyzed, trying to take it all in.
Which is really, when you think about it, the opposite of how I should behave in the face of this knowledge.
So my prayer tonight as the sun descends and ocean fog thickens around this town, is that my sister has found a warm place to rest tonight, that her heart is strong and comforted in the knowledge of her Lord, and that I might have the courage when I see her again to smile and greet her (myself in disguise) with an open heart.
Image Credit: Zivar Amrami