I always face a moral dilemma when approaching an intersection where I see someone with a "Homeless" or "Hungry" or "Anything Helps" sign.
The first thing I feel is pity, sadness. It never fails. And then perhaps to make myself feel better, I begin to wonder if what they're saying is true. Are they really homeless? If I give them cash, will they use it for food or another necessity or for something else? Drugs, beer?
Occasionally, I will scrape together whatever I can find and offer it to them. But mostly, I avoid eye contact, staring off into space as I anxiously wait for the light to change. There are times when I don't have any cash or honestly I'm just too wrapped up in my own day to care about anyone else or to make room in my heart for more of the world's misfortune.
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And other times, without even knowing a person's story, I find myself judging. After looking the person up and down, assessing the state of their clothes, the penmanship on their cardboard sign, the look in their eyes, I wonder how they let their lives get to this point. Maybe my judgment is a means to avoidance.
Then for a moment, as I pull off in my climate-controlled car with food, water, and everything else I need perfectly attainable, I feel a certain sense of shame and guilt. I could have helped, but I didn't. Why? Because I judged someone I didn't know. Because I was too busy thinking of myself and my problems.
Even on days when I am feeling particularly generous and I've offered a dollar or whatever else I have to give, there's still a feeling of inadequacy as I drive off, moving on with my day and leaving them behind. Nothing I can do in those moments will give that person what they really need — a bed, a warm meal, and a place to call home.
My two dollars won't drastically change their lives. In the big scheme of life, two bucks is a drop in the bucket of what they really need. But it's this type of thinking that keeps me and maybe others from doing what they can, when they can, how they can.
And even if a couple of bucks won't solve all their problems, it is something. If nothing else, it's an acknowledgement. It acknowledges that they are a real human being who, for whatever reason or because of whatever unfortunate life circumstances they've faced, is in a pretty desperate situation.
Whatever the case, as fellow human beings and fellow Memphians, it's remiss of me and, dare I say, of you, to pass these people on a daily basis without offering so much as a smile. We all can do better.
Memphis has been ranked one of the country's most philanthropic cities in the past. In 2017, a study from The Chronicle of Philanthropy named Memphis the most charitable city in the country. I wonder though, how much more charitable Memphis would be if we gave without judgment, without apprehension, and without expectations.
There are everyday needs all around us and tangible ways to meet them. There are people literally standing on a street corner right now in the cold, in the rain, in real need. If not a dollar, then buy them a hot coffee or a hot meal or give them a sweater from the bag of clothes you were going to donate anyway. Beyond that, there are a plethora of ways to help out those in need in the city all year-round, but especially now as the holiday season approaches.
Make a meal, deliver a meal, volunteer, tutor, mow your neighbor's lawn, read to kids, pick up trash. There is something that you and I both can do today. We don't have to wait until we're richer or have more time or more energy or more motivation. We can do it now, and we should do it now. Let's stop staring off into space and begin doing something kind for someone in need. It'll feel good, I promise.
Maya Smith is a Flyer staff writer.