You’re not going to save the world with a sandwich, but…
I bought an extra sandwich at Starbucks the other day. I had passed a homeless woman on my way in. She was sitting on the bench outside Starbucks (where she often sits), and I handed it over when I passed on my way out. She just took it from my hand. There was no exchange of words. I smiled.
“What are you doing?” my friend snapped. “That doesn’t solve anything, you know. It doesn’t fix the issue.”
I was taken aback.
Who said I was trying to fix homelessness? I just gave someone a sandwich.
She continued, “Stuff like that actually exacerbates the problem.”
It does? Wait… you mean, if that homeless lady didn’t get a sandwich, was she going to… go HOME?
And now… because I just reinforced the lesson that, if you stay on the street, and you don’t wash, and you foster a disheveled look that communicates a clear message of mental instability, THEN… people will give you free sandwiches?
Oh God… what have I done? I can hear it now…
Yeah! Fuck the house, job, life… they’re giving away free sandwiches over here!!!
I said nothing, but my brain had just kicked into some hyper-overdrive and was trying to make sense of the perspective shared by this… (I glanced sideways at the body walking beside me, dressed in a sharp business suit and looking at its phone as we walked) well, person, I guess.
(Quite honestly, she had fallen so far in my estimation in the past 35 seconds that my brain did not really know what box to put her into anymore. I wanted to group her with some kind of vermin, but the truth is, I couldn’t think of a single creature… oh, wait – ticks. Yeah, I could group her with ticks.)
Tick Lady was still expounding on how my “gesture,” only appeared kind on the surface. Actually, I had been serving myself. Giving the sandwich had been my conscience washing its hands of the larger issue.
“Gestures like that are about making US feel better – it doesn’t help THEM. Not really.”
Ok. Ok, hold on. Just hold on. There were so many things wrong with that statement I didn’t quite know where to begin.
(I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t respond in the moment. In that actual moment, my brain temporarily shorted out – from shock, I think. And, I said nothing… out loud.)
First of all, FIRST OF ALL, my brain was stammering…
I’m not sure what was going to be first (like I said, my brain was short-circuiting), but I’ll just throw this out – anytime you hear yourself saying “Us” and “Them” in the same sentence, pause, and take a moment to define for yourself who the “Us” is you are referring to? And who is the “Them?”
If what you were actually saying was something like, “It certainly makes us (parents) feel better when we see them (children) wear coats when it is so cold outside,” then you are gold. Parent and Child – those are two very legitimate categories. Continue on, good fellow.
But in the scenario above, who is US?
People with homes?
People with money?
People without mental health disorders?
People with college degrees?
People who were able to take a shower this morning?
People with jobs?
And who is THEM?
People who put all of their belongings in shopping carts?
People who build cardboard shelters beside freeway overpasses?
People who mutter to themselves?
People who smell bad?
We parted ways at the next crosswalk – Tick Lady and I. (Actually, I pretended that I needed to detour to do an errand, but really, I just needed to put some distance between myself and Tick Lady, because I was beginning to feel distinctly unclean.)
I wondered as I walked – if Tick Lady passed a bedraggled looking kitten, so skinny its ribs were showing, would she have had the same sort of response? Accused me of exacerbating the “kitten problem” if I had given it something to eat?
I had a feeling that Tick Lady might have responded differently to a kitten.
Was the homeless lady less deserving of help than a stray cat?
She was certainly a lot less cute?
Or is it that she should be held more accountable than a cat for whatever circumstances brought her to this state? (I’m willing to put my chips on mental illness… It was the overpowering smell of pee that had tipped me off – well, that and the collection of plastic toys that filled half her cart – because I’m pretty sure that even if you’re only in it for the free sandwiches, you probably do look for a bathroom when you need to pee if you are in full possession of your mental faculties.)
I think about this friend…. acquaintance, really. Not a friend. Maybe co-worker would be more accurate. We’ll just call Tick Lady a co-worker. Anyhow, I think about her. How easily those words slid off her tongue. She wore those words like a suit of armor, or a badge of pride!!
She was doing something!
I might be giving away sandwiches, but she, by her very inaction, was helping!
Those lying words pretended to be action.
I could still hear her voice, “That doesn’t solve anything, you know. It doesn’t fix the issue… Stuff like that actually exacerbates the problem.”
As I walked, my brain continued to spin, and I did what we so often do when we have had an unsettling encounter. I began, internally, to formulate a response – the response I wished I had had at the tip of my tongue when I needed it.
No. I am not trying to fix homelessness. I’m pretty sure a sandwich is not going to do that.
But, I’ll tell you what a sandwich can do…
It can relieve hunger pangs and the stomach cramps that go with hunger.
It can, right now, in this minute, lessen the suffering of a creature living on planet Earth.
THAT is what a sandwich can do.
Now, I’m not being obtuse. I KNOW what she meant. She meant that bigger action is needed. Systemic action. Actions that will really get at the roots of the larger problem. Don’t walk away feeling good about yourself over a sandwich.
All of that is true.
The thing is, somehow, I didn’t get the feeling that Tick Lady was going to go home and devote attention to the larger problem. I think what really rubbed my fur the wrong way was the complete and total absence of compassion for the suffering of another.
(Cause I kind of got the feeling that Homeless Lady has drawn a few short straws in her day. We don’t all slip out of the womb with an equal hand, after all.)
And if Tick Lady and I are both going to go home, kick off our shoes, and NOT tackle the larger issue, then I’m glad that at least I was able to offer a sandwich.