Life, Lent, and Indifference

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April 18, 2017 by poverty2professional

If you observed yesterday’s holiday, hope you enjoyed a happy Easter! And if not, hope you enjoyed a lovely spring day. While this blog has been on hiatus for a few months, I figured yesterday’s message of rebirth and renewal was a good place to start. And, as this blog now transitions toward topics of college and postsecondary education, I did want to touch one last time on the original impetus for this series: raising awareness of homelessness and poverty.

This year for Lent, I undertook a commitment that brought me a little closer to reflecting on need and personal engagement. For those who are unfamiliar with the tradition, Lent is the roughly six-week period leading up to Easter. It is reflective of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. While most practicing Christians don’t need to go to this extreme, they generally give up something else that takes a deal of commitment, such as a favorite food or activity.

For Lent this year I took up the recommendation offered a couple years ago by our current pope, Pope Francis: give up indifference to the plight of others. Having grown up Catholic, I’d been raised to recognize Lent as the whole whip-yourself-on-the-back-with-a-cat-of-nine-tails season. I was taught you had to give up something significant that way whenever you craved it you could reflect and wish you craved Christ just as much (paraphrasing my old pastor here). So, I gave up video games – no small feat for my nerdy, gamer girl self. In succeeding years, I’ve given up sweets, soda, French fries – basically a forty-day fad diet fast that had little spiritual value. Until this year, I have never given up anything abstract.

But Pope Francis posed an interesting question. After all, how indifferent are we to others’ needs in our own busy, daily lives? I’m no stranger to seeing folks panhandling on the street and seeing several people (occasionally myself included) walk by without dropping so much as a “hello,” much less a dollar. Giving up indifference was something I could commit to every day.

So where do I start?

I started with the prompt: Give up indifference toward the plight of others. All right, how was I supposed to define plight? While I figured I could do that on a case-by-case basis, I also knew that I would probably pass many instances of it in my day-to-day. For instance, I work in downtown Los Angeles. I pass at least five to eight people struggling with homelessness on my six-block, lunch break walk alone. There’s clearly a need, but if I gave a dollar to every person I passed I would find myself with a fairly unsustainable plan of action for the Lenten season.

So, I prepared for that. I bought a case of small water bottles and made a point of carrying at least a couple whenever I went out on my lunch break. Generally speaking, everyone needs water and it is an item that can still be refused or accepted without being entirely superficial, such as cash. I left it to my personal discretion if I wanted to donate cash as well.

I then asked myself how I would define “plight.” That’s a pretty heavy word when you think about it. Plight. Yeesh. And how much of it could I handle? How much could I really help?

A couple days following Ash Wednesday, I got my question answered.

After work, a coworker and I walked to the train station home. Now, it’s not uncommon for folks to solicit for cash around subway stations or just generally hang out when there’s nowhere else to go. When my coworker and I got there, a woman was yelling despairingly, shaking her head and crying at what seemed to be no one in particular. She hunched over an old wheelchair that held a bag of loose bottles. Her clothes were shabby. She was most likely homeless, and possibly mentally unstable (see P2P’s post on mental health and homelessness).

Nervous, my coworker quickly tapped her metro pass card to move on through the turnstyle. My own card needed more fare, so I encouraged her to go on without me. As I loaded my pass card, I paid more attention to why the woman with the wheelchair was distraught. From the sounds of it, she’d lost her purse. Futilely, she tried calling the metro transit operator to find out how she could collect her lost item. I listened with her on the intercom to the crackling recommendation to try Lost and Found in two to three days in the event that someone would turn her purse in. It was an unlikely circumstance.

After calming her down, I asked the woman how much she had in her purse. She had about six dollars, but her wallet also held her ID and metro pass card. I couldn’t replace her wallet, but I did have an extra card. I loaded it up with a matching amount of fare and gave it to her. I then asked the lady if she was hungry.

Vigorously, she nodded her head. “I’m diabetic, so I need to keep up my blood sugar.”

“I understand.” Dear Lord. I escorted her up out of the subway station and to street corner where she felt more comfortable. Once we’d gotten her resettled into her chair, I then hustled across the street to pick her up a quick meal.

“Do you have any insulin on you?” I asked. Diabetes is a delicate balance of blood sugar to insulin. People who live with diabetes have to self-moderate this balance because their bodies don’t do this naturally. Failure to moderate this can lead to ketoacidosis, essentially being sweetened to death.

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “I’m going to try and get to the shelter from here.”

Short of escorting her over there, I couldn’t necessarily help with that. I wished her well and went on to catch the next train toward Union Station.

This first incident gave me a lot to think about. How far involved was I willing to get in someone else’s need? How much of myself could I offer that was reasonable? Where did I draw the line? Should I draw one?

Over the next forty-ish days (because I didn’t take Sundays off, which is technically an option), I assisted several people, some familiar and many complete strangers, plus one baby hummingbird that had fallen out of its nest.  I also noticed a pattern of who needs help, who gets it, and who gives it. The folks who most need help are (unsurprisingly) the most overlooked. Why? I think it’s seen as too much trouble. Perhaps one of the things I most remember my father warning me of was, “Don’t get involved,” whenever he saw a situation on the street – an argument, an outburst, anything. Undoubtedly, it was his parental instinct to protect me, but it also made me detached from wanting to help total strangers. How involved would I have to get? Many times it’s the first thought I had before anything else. It’s one that is also probably common for folks who are coming from positions of having to prioritize their own survival.

And I found that it’s not nearly as expensive – in time or treasure – as I thought.

The truth is, at the end of my season, I had spent maybe twenty-five dollars on donated food, materials, and cash to other people. About a decent dinner for two or a couple of movie tickets over the space of six weeks. If I weren’t operating at an intensive capacity, it might even be less. Either way, I could afford that. It’s fairly inexpensive to provide just a little basic assistance to another human being. How inconvenient was it? Not terribly. I spent more time sitting with a hummingbird waiting for wildlife services than I did with some folks who needed a boost in their day.

Unfortunately, it’s a human precondition to avoid anything too difficult. So who gets helped? Not folks who seem “complicated,” those who look like they’re dealing with poverty, homelessness, or emotional strain. Not someone who just needs a door held open. Too much at once seems like a chore, a hassle, and means “getting involved.”

This past week when I was at the Dollar Tree, a young woman tried sorting her cartload of goods into no less than eight bags. No one spoke to her – not even the cashier after she moved along – or asked if she needed help with the cumbersome task or offered to help carry them to her car. After checking out, I asked where she parked. She was taking the train. (I know, there’s a lot of action for me around the train. Go Metro.) The station was only two blocks up, but I don’t know how she expected to carry everything with only two hands. So, I grabbed a few bags and waddled over with her. At the platform, she consolidated a couple of the bags, but I decided I should wait with her for the next train. After all, she’d still need an extra set of hands to get them onboard. That next step would take more time – a little more of a detour – but I didn’t mind. By the end of Lent, I was getting used to going a little extra.

So, the good news? Practice makes better. You get used to helping others. It starts to turn into snap decisions. I got off the overcrowded subway to trade places with a tired construction worker. You become aware of what tunes you out to other peoples’ needs. I don’t walk around with headphones as often if I plan on interacting with others on my walks. And gradually, over forty days, you develop a habit. I will do my best to continue giving up indifference toward the plight of others outside of Lent.

Compassion doesn’t always happen inside our comfort zones. And far be it from me to get too comfortable.

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