Showing Kindness to Strangers
A dashboard confessional that’s more emo than the band
I see this guy nearly every day. I pass by him as I drive to work. Rail thin, always lugging a backpack around, always hobbling around under the overpass, always carrying a cardboard sign with something I can’t make out written on it — but I know what he is. It sounds awful when I say it like that, but from my description I’m sure even you know what he is by now. He’s one of the many homeless folks left to fend for themselves out on the street, panhandling for money. It’s the hardest job there is and the pay is shit, but there’s still a ton of people that go out there and do it every day. I don’t know who this man is, and I don’t know anything about him except what I’ve observed, so automatically to me he was less of a who and more of a what.
Oh hey, look, another homeless guy.
My brain betrayed my empathy there. It made that leap for me without my consent or blessing.
Worse still, he’s always on the opposite side of the road, so I have yet to give him any money — this is something I regret deeply. I have to turn right immediately after the light he hangs out around, so I’m always in the right lane, and he’s always on the left side by the overpass. I hate to admit it, because it makes me sound callous, but convenience is a factor during 8 a.m. rush hour traffic. Usually I’m already running late. If he could just read my mind, he might come over to my side of the road, and I would totally give him money. Probably coins, because I rarely have cash. I might give him something else too. Something he could sell, or maybe just my lunch. But even the fact that I want him to move for me, for my own convenience, is disgusting to me. I hate that the only reason I haven’t contributed something to this poor guy, or shown him any bit of external compassion or kindness, is because there’s a bit of road in between us, and I can’t stand to be another ten minutes late.
Actually, that’s not the only reason. Memories play a role. I remember going to Washington, D.C. for a class field trip, I was maybe 8 or 9, and being approached by a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup. My parents told me to avert my eyes and walk on, “Ignore them,” they said. I looked back after we’d passed but he had already moved on. Once, on a train somewhere at the edge of California (we were taking a day trip to Tijuana), I was about 15 maybe, a homeless guy asked my mom for money and she ignored him. Or, at least she tried to. The guy pointed a finger-gun at my mother’s head and said, “I bet if I put a gun to your head you’d give me money.” At that point my step-dad intervened, “Whoa, hey hey hey, there buddy. Get out of here,” and moved protectively in front of my mother. When I was in my early twenties I passed by a homeless person and all I had on me was my leftovers from lunch, so I gave them to him, he needed it more than me. He also asked me for cash, but I didn’t have any. I wish I’d had more to give him.
Those encounters haven’t prevented me from actively giving to homeless people whenever they wander across my path, but I don’t seek them out, and I don’t do enough because I know it won’t be enough. It’s easy to hide behind the thought that no matter how kind you are, and no matter how much you try, you can’t save everyone.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Or Pearls Before Swine:
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
I see the kindness of others every day, enough of it to keep my faith in humanity. What bothers me a great deal is that usually, the kindness is directed at someone with the same or nearly-the-same socioeconomic status as themselves. So… what holds us back? Why aren’t we kinder to others who run outside the circles we keep to? Well, that’s pretty easy to pinpoint — judgement. It’s impossible not to judge others. Everyone does it. Snap judgments are our brains’ way of creating a shortcut to reach a conclusion, and they’re often aided by stereotypes. And when stereotypes are constantly perpetuated, even if you disagree with them in a better, higher part of your brain, they’re hard to forget completely.
Tomorrow I hope I’ll get in the left lane and be an extra ten minutes late.