A couple of weeks ago while driving around town I observed a man panhandling as I sat waiting at a red light, my car the last in a long line of cars. He shuffled up and down the walkway on the driver’s side of the cars while holding a handwritten, cardboard sign that summed up his plight and his plea. No one answered his plea, including myself.
My eyes followed him as I wondered how he reached this point in life where he, in this moment at least, put his life in the hands of strangers so dependently. I gave thanks for not being in his shoes (though I did experience homelessness before, something I’ve shared to less than a handful of people), I gave thanks for my life.
I wondered about this man, a young Black man in his 30’s or 40’s, and how it was that of all the possibilities in life by which he can earn money, legally or illegally, he settled on this way of panhandling as the way. I know there are other ways – does he? Young, relatively healthy-looking, physically able, and endowed with abilities and possibilities that can be developed, expanded, and realized.
Yet, was this all that he could see for himself? Of the numberless possibilities that abound all around, why this one? Why panhandling?
Then I imagined myself as him, walking slowly, wishfully, down and defeated, up and down lines of cars whose drivers either give, ignore, ridicule, pity, love, or loathe. I looked through his eyes, felt through his soul, endured with his agony (because, after all, he and I are one).
The miles covered day after day, night after night, in aimless wanderings lighted upon with occasional glimpses of good fortune along an endless road of ironic misery and despair.
I then imagined the disgust with which people regard him and so many like him in circumstance. I imagined their sanctimonious fingers pointing at him with contempt, lectures punctuated with words like ‘self-reliance’, ‘bootstraps’, and ‘American dream’; or pitying pleas to seek ‘government help’, ‘social programs’, and ‘great society’.
My guess is that most of us don’t want to see him, much less engage him in any meaningful way. We’d prefer that he and all others like him be closeted away in chambers of neglect and forgetfulness so as to let our consciences rest in the bliss of willful blindness and indifference.
He reminds us of ourselves. He stands as a reminder not only of our collective failure as a society but our personal incompleteness as individuals.
How many of us wander aimlessly through life disconnected from our jobs and careers that do not engage our hearts and souls? How many of us endure, not enjoy, our marriages – wearisome unions of monogamy and monotony? How many of us depend not on ourselves for a fulfilling life but make others responsible for our happiness and our pain?
How many of us are just like this forgotten man whose life I could only imagine in the moment I witnessed him being least like the empowered, enlivened Human Being he was born to be?
How am I just like him – incapacitated by fear and resignation? More than I am willing to admit.
The light turned green. I drove away from that moment, following the line of cars in a parade of indifference and disconnectedness, wondering what awaited me at the next red light of reflection.