I stepped out of the office this morning for one of my million daily smoke breaks and had my tobacco-scented daydreams of world media conquest interrupted by a man asking for a handout. He spoke so softly I wasn’t sure at first if he had asked for the time or for money, though, living in a city, expected the latter. Within a moment of appraising his appearance I was certain and automatically put on my Tender Sympathy® face, featuring the trademark head cocked to the side which means, “I’m sorry, brother, I have nothing to give you.” He was well familiar with my reaction and shuffled off, moving very slowly. But this time I didn’t turn away, I kept looking after him.
He was rail thin, obviously very ill. His clothes weren’t shabby but they were too young for him — baggy jeans and an outsized sweatshirt — though the day was warm and bright. “They’re donated clothes,” I thought. The pants’ seat was dirty from street grime. He moved so slowly.
I threw away the butt, went into the building and headed downstairs to the restaurant for lunch. But it wouldn’t work this time. The incredible absurdity of what I had done replayed itself in my head. Hannah Arendt made her mark recognizing that evil is often the result of banality. Evil can also be an absurdity. I told him I had nothing for him and my pocket was full of money. I was about to spend some of it to make my fat ass fatter and that man looked like he was starving to death. Why had I lied? What was I protecting?
For a moment — and all of this happened within a matter of seconds — I bargained with myself that, from this moment on, I would make it a rule never to deny a beggar. That worked for about one second. What about this beggar? Then the thinking simply… stopped. I turned on my heel and headed back up the stairs, went out of the building and searched for him. Couldn’t find him in the midtown lunchtime throngs. I headed in the direction I had last seen him and, getting to the corner, looked both ways. Found him about 50 feet away. As I approached he was submitting his request to a young man who sinned just as I had done. I was tempted to review the face of the young man as the interaction ended, but denied myself that. It would be selfish and it wasn’t about him.
I walked up and put my hand on the man’s shoulder and in that moment acknowledged how rarely I touch anyone that I haven’t know for years. He stopped and looked at me, not wary, not fearful, not anything beyond present. And now we have to turn the handle on the zoetrope very slowly because time shifted. In a matter of perhaps two seconds I said, “You asked me for something. Will this help?” and offered five dollars. He looked down, took the money and said, “God bless you, sir.” I smiled and nodded and walked back into the building. And that was that. But this is what really happened:
I looked at his face. It was a small sweet face, very lined and weathered, fringed with gray hair that squeezed out from under his baseball cap. His eyes were reddened and deadened but he saw me. I looked away in shame and then looked back because I couldn’t just walk away without acknowledging our interaction. I smiled, I hoped reassuringly. He couldn’t react quickly, his ailing body couldn’t. He looked after me as I walked through the door and I felt as heartbroken as I have ever felt in my life because I couldn’t linger with him. Even for another moment.
A long time ago I took a class with Sara Ruddick at the New School that addressed the question of thinking on moral action. Finally, I know what to say in class: thinking may promote benevolence — but it may also inhibit native compassion and attention to “the small voice within”, as Iris Murdoch referred to it, that can lead us to treat others humanely. The thoughts I had after I walked away from that man, and the lesson learned, are too personal to write about. But the experience opened my eyes to the possibility of everyday grace in a world hardened by personal fears and cold abstractions. Out of nowhere, unbidden, a man asked me a simple question and, perhaps, hopefully, changed the way I treat people as I go through my days.
Believe it or not I’m not religious. Really.
“And when we think we lead, we are most led.”
– Lord Byron