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The last time you were asked for spare change while walking through your local big-box parking lot, or down a downtown street, what did you do? What made you choose to give or not give your money to a stranger?
I sometimes forget to buy cat food and coffee on my late night drives home from work. The next morning I’m greeted by an incessantly meowing feline and a hunger for hot caffeine. I always and eventually brave the harsh morning sunlight. From the moment I leave the door I’m only thinking of one thing: returning home to a warm abed and a contented cat. Needless to say, it’s much too early to wrestle with a complex personal and social issue. But in the parking lot of the grocery store that I frequent I don’t have much choice — each entrance being guarded by those destitute asking for change.
I turn into a confused, squishy ball of empathy, ignorance, anger and bumbling cowardice. To have such resolve, to know exactly what’s personally appropriate for you to do in a moment like that is something I’ve never been particularly good at. I think too much and do far too little.
My scatter-brained response is born of a conflict of the term itself. When I hear mention of “the homeless,” it reminds me of a horror movie title, conjuring images of zombies moving in droves, dressed in tatters. That is a horrifically unfair generalization.
The homeless population is just like any other swath of the public, they all just happen to have this one thing in common. That one binding thread speaks nothing of character or of the state of someone’s mind body and soul. Every single person on this earth has story, and each story is unique to that person. No story can be known by simply walking by someone on your way into the store.
How is it possible to give every encounter of a stranger in need the time of day necessary to really understand what they are going through and how they got there? And even if I did do that, then do I need to develop a grading scale for what plights and tragedies translate to in dollar amounts? Is a heart-breaking story worth $40 while one that’s simply kind of sad worth a quarter? And when does it end?
Do I choose the six most deserving candidates, by way of essay contest or something, and give them what I can afford? And how much should I care that my $2.37 is paying for a ham sandwich or a shooter of Jim Beam? Am I really even helping anyway?
It’s by this time that I’m typically back home — Francis the cat quietly eating and me sipping warm coffee — not having helped anyone. Only one thing is all too apparent: I’m spending a little too much time thinking about how I’m being affected by other people’s hardships and suffering.
I am only human, and humans can be real selfish assholes.
Nic R. Krause was born a cranky, curmudgeon of a child in a Minnesota suburb. He was plucked from the muggy tundra and relocated to Colorado Springs 22 years ago. Follow him on Twitter @NicRKrause.