img_8734We’ve all heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.”

The wisdom in these words has inspired some folks to do more than just toss quarters into a beggar’s cup. These are the few optimistic and bighearted amongst us who become teachers, volunteers, or provide reduced-rate skilled-services for those in need. Most others, instead, donate to charities, so those who have the time and perseverance to do charitable work also have the resources they need to get it done.

I’ve fallen into both camps in the past, as a do-er and a donator, but have found the former to be too draining because of what some might call over-sensitivity, compounded by limited energy, and the latter to be less than satisfying. Yet, with philanthropy at my core, I crave personal interaction with those that I help, and often find myself chatting with homeless people I encounter on the street, asking if they’d like me to buy them a meal.

The vast majority are able-bodied men who have stumbled on one misfortune or another. It can be assumed that many have developed substance-abuse issues, and by buying them a meal I know that they can feed their bodies rather than their addictions.

Though I wish I had the inner resources to dedicate my life to helping these needy individuals in more profound ways, teaching them to fish, as it were, I know from experience that the cycles of desperation that they usually fall into are too depleting for me to work within effectively.  My work is, at its best, to help guide people away from this street-bound fate on the preventative end of the spectrum.

Thus, more often than not, beggars’ features fade into the crowd of homeless men in my foggy memory, and I go on with my life without much second thought.

But occasionally I encounter someone who affects me so deeply that they stay in my memory forever. These are the people who need more help than I could ever hope to offer. One was a man in a wheelchair who probably looked 15 years older than his actual age. I met him on one of the busy avenues in midtown Manhattan a few years ago, the familiar chinking of the coins in his cup drawing my attention despite my attempts to keep walking. I asked him if I could buy him some food, and what he would want, and he told me he was intending to head to Burger King when he collected enough change. I asked if I could buy him some food from the deli across the street instead, and proceeded to try to explain why Burger King might not be the best choice.

As we talked about different meals he revealed to me that he had diabetes and that he couldn’t eat anything hard because most of his teeth were missing. I bought him the turkey sandwich he wanted and requested extra lettuce in a -perhaps futile- attempt to incorporate vegetables into his meal, along with a bottle of water instead of the soda he would have preferred.

I felt impudent, imposing my health guidelines on this man, and helpless, as I knew he probably neither wanted nor could afford to follow them as he struggled to survive on the streets. I also felt desperate, knowing that a diabetic with an unhealthy diet is a losing combination, and it broke my heart to think of this sweet man with the toothless smile coming into even greater misfortune. He was grateful when I brought him the food, but as I walked across the street I could hear him thinking, “crazy white-lady,” behind his baffled smile.

Just a few weeks ago I met another person I know will stay in my memory for a long, long time. I was walking to the supermarket with a few friends in downtown Portland, and across the street from the entrance was a frail, white-haired woman, holding herself up on her walker with one hand while the other held her collections cup. I was shocked and saddened to see that she looked as old as my grandmother. Out of habit I asked her if she would like me to buy her some food. She said she’d prefer a gift card, which the market sells for as little as five dollars, so she could choose the food herself. I realized that for a woman her age I didn’t really care how she spent her money, but I didn’t have time to bring logic into the situation.

As I crossed the street to buy her a gift-card I encountering another impoverished man. He was selling a newspaper and paced the corner nimbly. The contrast between these two beggars was striking to me. While my heart went out to both of them, it was interesting for me to watch myself be more concerned for the old lady. She was so frail that I couldn’t imagine any other way for her to make money, and I was angry that she had to at all at this point in her life, that she didn’t have any family or friends to help take care of her, and that our government allows for circumstances to get so bad that old ladies have to beg on the street. The man with the newspapers could take care of himself. Maybe not well, but there was potential for him to apply himself and get a job and make a living. The old woman, seemingly, had nothing but her walker to lean on, and all I could do was give her money so she could buy herself a fish for a meal.

These are the people who have stuck in my memory, but the reality, as we all know, is one of a widespread problem. It is easy to become depressed when we think of how much pain and suffering there is in the world, and paralyzed when we envision how little we can do to help. But sometimes we have to sit with the fact that the bit we contribute, no matter its size, is something, and something is better than nothing. Seeing these people and keeping them in our hearts is a small feat, but it’s not worthless. In fact, it can help the world.

Please share your thoughts!

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