Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A man alone

What leads a person to where they are?

Why do two people in apparently the exact same situations in life react in such different ways?

Why do I react so differently to two people in apparently the exact same situation in life?

Why do I not seem to have any idea as to how I should react to the above people??

Boy, I've been pondering these questions a great deal lately. What precipitated these thoughts is the presence of a man alone. I say that he is alone because I know nothing more than what I see. He is of average height, thin but not emaciated, with long hair and beard. He has taken to wearing some of those funny new shoes that look like plastic slip-ons with holes in them, in a bright red color. He carries his rolled-up sleep mat, bound with a rope and hanging down in front of his belly. The pack slung on his back is large and full. I see him almost every single day as I drive in to work, walking along the side of the road. I often see him as I come home, headed the other way to places unknown. I see him others times, occasionally.

One recent Saturday, my family ate breakfast at the McDonald's near where I see him walking; he was there, having his own breakfast. I suspect this is where he is headed most mornings, in the pre-dawn light and chill that hangs even in Houston at this time of year. I saw him as he prayed over that meal, and it seemed that he spent more time in that prayer than I frequently spend in a day talk to my God. I also saw the way some eyed him askance, unspoken thoughts running through their minds about this man alone in a restaurant full of people. Perhaps some worried about what he might do with all the little children eating and playing there, a sentiment I can honestly understand. Perhaps some felt uncomfortable with his near presence, or a prejudice of who he is and what his life is. I don't know their thoughts, I can only guess; but I do know my own thoughts about this man. I see him, and I see one who is in hard times - the outward appearance - and I see one whose heart is good and trustworthy - the inward appearance.

I will admit that this is not my impression of every person I see on the roadside around town. I'm often skeptical, though Mrs. E reminds me not to judge and to be generous; skeptical of their true need, of their intentions and if they could be relied upon to wisely use what I might give. But there in lies the distinction between this man alone and the others: I have never, not once in the many months since first observing him, seen him ask for anything. Nothing. Never begging on the roadside, though his need is at least as obvious as many of those to which I've given a handout. He walks, eats at McDonald's, spends his day doing who knows what, and then he walks back to whence he came.

The difference may not be in him. Perhaps it is my perception of him that separates him from the many others I see on the streets. He strikes me as one in need but not as one who is needy, if you see my distinction. And this distinction, be it in him or me, makes me ask myself these question. Is he so different as I suppose, despite living in the same situation as others? What brought him to be there, walking every morning and afternoon along my normal commute? Why do I perceive him as being so different than the others? I have scant little information about him or any other person living on the street to form any kind of judgment. And finally, why am I so confused as to what I should do? Should I approach him - say with a McDonald's card to give him meals for a little while? Should I instead give him the space he may want, since he has asked for nothing?

The more I consider this man, the more I pray for answers, the more I feel I should do something to help. I am more than open to suggestions on this one.

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Anne said...

Just have a seat with him the next time you see him. We all like having a friend to talk to.

If I was alone all the time I would love for someone to think me important enough to take time out of their life for me.

Just my immediate thoughts. :)

euphrony said...

Thanks for the suggestion. I actually took Lil'E to that same McDonald's for breakfast on Saturday and he was there. He was engrossed in reading the newspaper, sitting in his booth and looking that he might stay there all day. And then I come home and read your comment: too late this time.

Douglas said...

Suggestions? This is something I struggle with alot. How do I relate to people who are homeless or mentally ill, especially those who have dropped out of the work-force for unknown reasons? I like Anne's earlier suggestion of trying to strike up a conversation with the guy. I try (and sometimes fail) to treat homeless folks with the same kindness and respect as anyone else and as a general rule to not preach to them since they hear it alot. Religion often naturally comes up in conversation and the person will inquire more if interested. Of course, sometimes those rules fail. One time I offered a prostitute my Bible. She broke down in tears and said it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her. There's alot more to the conversation up to that point, but that was one instance where I was successfully more direct about religion. This last summer I picked up a homeless hitchhiker on a cross-country drive and decided to play some Christian music cds when the conversation died down. It was an old Kathy Trocolli cd that my wife had bought eons ago and a song had the lyrics, seek out the hopeless, confused and worn. It sounded to me like it said "homeless" and not hopeless. I think the guy thought that too. He asked to turn it up and 15 minutes later asked to get out at the next major town. Said he had changed his mind on his next destination and the timing of his arrival at our mutual destination town. I had tried to let religion come up naturally and it failed miserably. I am pretty sure the guy left offended and assumed that I thought of him as an object of evangelisation instead of as a person who deserved kindness and respect. I really don't know how to handle obvious lies that one is told. I usually try to ignore them if they don't involve my wallet, but don't know if that is good or bad.

The only way to learn the best way to deal with the underclass, though, is by trying. I'll say a prayer for you.

Keep in mind that this "advise" is coming from a guy who 2 months ago ignored a probable homeless/mentally ill man. I told myself he could take care of himself and probably no harm would come him despite obvious signs to the contrary. Two hours later he was dead and 4 hours later I was sitting at a roadblock asking an officer if I could get through to pick my kids up from the babysitter's house after a self-absorbed night on the town with my wife. Failure? Big time. Hypocrite? Guilty as charged.


euphrony said...

Doug, thanks for your comment and your honesty. I haven't actually seen him at all this week, which is a rare thing. The next time I'm at McDonald's and he is there, I'll definitely do more than smile and nod in a friendly but distant greeting.

I keep thinking to myself about the scene from the movie "Groundhog Day" where Bill Murray's character notices for the first time the homeless man that he had previously seen only as a hurdle on his way to do a job he hated. That was the characters turning point, where he actually stopped caring only about himself. I see these traits so easily in a movie character, but what of them is in me? Where do I let the selfishness overcome the compassion?

Anne said...

I was thinking recently that you might have Little E make him a card to give him the next time you see him. My kids LOVE to make cards for people.

It would give him some joy that you and your family were thinking about him AND your child learns a little bit in the process.

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