Most of us have driven by people who appear to be homeless or hungry. Often, they are holding up crudely fashioned signs made out of cardboard and reading, “Will work for food.” In this particularly harsh Midwestern winter, I recently came across a man holding his sign in a busy shopping area on one of the coldest days in December. I felt as though I had a million things on my mind and certainly knew I could never try to employ someone I saw with such a sign. At the same time, driving past this person huddled against the subzero temperatures and doing nothing did not feel right either.
So I decided to buy a gift card at a local restaurant chain which has plenty of hot soup, hot coffee, and much hotter temperatures than a frigid Midwestern intersection. My idea was to jot down a couple helpline numbers and shelter addresses to include with the card.
It’s hard not to speculate about this man’s story, and I imagined everything from an average person scamming money from strangers to someone living on the streets while suffering from mental illness or addiction.
I am an expert in overthinking, and had talked myself in and out of stopping to give the man the gift card several times. The frigid wind chills made it harder to believe it was a day to stand outside unnecessarily, and I eventually figured the worst I was doing was sharing a meal with a stranger. So, I headed back to the intersection.
When I arrived at the street corner with my card, the man was gone. Now the first ten questions in my mind turned into one hundred, ending with where he was now and whether someone had actually taken him up on his sign. I knew the idea of personal interaction held too much anxiety for me; more significant help for him would have to come from one of the shelters or other resources hastily printed on my notepaper. I tucked the gift card and resource list inside my glove compartment and headed off to finish my day.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the problems in life. Many issues deserve our attention, many charities are worthy of our donations, many opinions have their valid points. Are we enabling someone by giving them something for nothing? Are we encouraging dependence, not asking for work but providing food? We can’t possibly answer all the deeper questions in the time spent waiting for a light to turn from red to green at a busy intersection. What we can do in response to seeing a fellow human being struggling with basic human needs, is to respond with the possibility of hope and nourishment.
I was driving in the area a few weeks later and saw another man shivering at a nearby intersection with his cardboard sign. I scrambled for my restaurant gift card wrapped in the notepaper with resource numbers. For some reason, my heart was pounding loudly as I rolled down the window and handed him the card. In the moment that he looked at me and said, “Bless you, ma’am”, it didn’t feel complicated at all. Without question, it felt like the simple joy of one person trying to help another.
Laura B joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.