|Image from Google Public Domain|
There’s a shopping centre near my home. It’s a typical neighbourhood mall, with a gas station, restaurant, doctor’s office, grocery store and a liquor outlet. Every day I pass by or through it, there’s a line of men, always men, on the sidewalks outside. They ask for change or busk for coins. The days that I stop in the liquor outlet, there is often a line of some of these same men inside. Like the rest of us, they’re buying what comfort and cheer they can afford, something to take the edge off or dull the experiences of their daily lives or simply to make the day seem a little bit better.
These buskers and beggars stand in the sun and the rain and the cold, day in and day out, never bothering people with more than a quick request, but they annoy many of us who would rather not be bothered with these people at all. We sometimes assume that there is something different, something better that these men could be doing with their time, that the money we give them will be wasted on drink or drugs or cigarettes. Such thoughts may not be charitable, but they’re human, a way to protect ourselves, to convince our egos that we would never be in such a position, asking for money in the streets and parking lots of a booming city.
This morning as I headed into the grocery store, I passed a young man at the entrance. His head hung down and his hand shook as he held out a stained paper coffee cup. He said nothing, made no eye contact, but in the time it took me to enter the store, several people muttered disapprovingly at his presence so close to the doors. One woman did something different; she tucked a five dollar bill into his cup. She smiled as the young man thanked her and blessed her and wished her a “Merry Christmas!” Then, she, too, carried on with her routine.
I either give or don’t give money to people. I make an effort not to question what they might do with the few coins I drop into their cups. A gift is a gift and their spending choices are not my business, but, oh so very humanly, I sometimes catch myself assuming that whatever I hand them will soon find its way into the tills at those nearby liquor stores. This was my first thought when the woman gave her gift. I was instantly ashamed of that thought and worked at replacing it with a more generous hope for the young man and all like him as I bought the day’s groceries.
When I left with my purchases, the young man was nowhere to be seen. It flashed across my mind that I knew where he had headed and then the thought was gone. As I walked towards home, I turned a corner and there he was, sitting on a bench, eating from a box full of chicken and chips. He’d used his money to buy food; the shaking I’d witnessed was likely from cold and hunger. My heart sunk a bit at the carelessness of my assumptions.
Just as I realized my error, the woman with the five dollar bill came past me. The young man recognized her and smiled. “Thank you,” he whispered. The woman said nothing; she simply bowed her head, smiling again as she nodded. In that moment, I was witness to the human connection we acknowledge every time we bow to each other in our yoga/meditation classes, as we chant “Namaste,” a connection we so often find difficult to put into practice as we go about our busy, busy lives. For an instant the open-hearted woman and the young man were One.
As I headed for home, my eyes began to water. It must have been from the cold and wind.