him can wear my other coat
by rebecca butler
One time, on a really cold drizzly day, my daughters and I saw a young man walk through the library enshrouded in a tattered and stained green blanket. While my older two discussed which of their favorite blankets they would choose for that scenario, my 2-year-old studied him and offered this:
"If him cold, him can wear my other coat."
She had both a coat and a sweater and she would be fine with just one. She was the only one who offered that, even though, if you think about it, that is the only thing that actually made sense under the circumstances. If you have two coats, you should give one to a cold person, right? If it was someone we knew, we would have jumped up and wrapped our coat around him, bought him a hot cup of coffee. But nobody knew this guy, so he just walked through alone, cold and wet.
Another time we saw a sign on an exit ramp announcing that the sign-holder was hungry and living in a car with her son. My daughters were appalled and they bombarded my husband and me with questions: How old is her son? Where is he right now? What color is his hair? Does he wear glasses? Does he have a daddy? Does he like living in the car?
Clearly, they still think we are ubiquitous and that we know the answer to everything, but I couldn't even answer this one: When did I stop being genuinely curious and concerned about people I don't know? This woman was right there, asking for help, and while I do offer money and food when I can, rarely do I give much else--nothing as valuable as my own head space and time to really connect with the reality of what they are living through. I'm not even talking about pondering her whole life, but what is her experience of standing in the misty Portland winter on a windy exit ramp, watching thousands of people drive by and ignore her?
Since my daughters pushed me into thinking about the woman living in her car, now I wonder about people all the time, even when I don't really want to. I wonder what circumstances people have to endure before they give up on following the norms of "proper" appearance and behavior. What would it take for me to find myself walking through the library huddled inside of a dirty blanket? If all of your energy went to securing food and shelter, what use would you have for following society's norms and mores? What would it be like to suddenly find yourself with concerns and needs so different from most people that you no longer had a place within, or concern for, their society?
This is the first time I have realized that being able to meet my basic needs is one of the fundamental links that I have to my society. Without proper food, clothing and shelter, there is a real chance that I would find myself on the outskirts of the society I have always known. The link is that fragile.
Once I began to consider some of these less obvious (to me, anyway) realities, it dawned on me that there is a significant cost to all of us who make the decision to stare straight ahead and not connect with the sign-holders on the exit ramps, or the homeless men shuffling through the library. Even if the whole experience, from decision-making to the time the person is out of sight, only takes two seconds, haven't we, for those two seconds, denied our innate sense of compassion, one of the few qualities that really makes this whole being-human thing truly extraordinary? Ignoring cold, hungry people is unnatural, right? I know it is, because my daughters are all young enough that they are still completely ruled by their emotions, and they never ignore people who look like they are suffering. They stare, they question, they become upset and confused and want to help. I think this would be the natural reaction in all of us if we didn't train ourselves to suppress it.
Maybe this compassion is the key to happiness and vitality. Often when we are in public, when my kids are running to the end of the sidewalk and back, or dancing while we wait in line, people comment that they wish they had a that kind of energy. I wonder if it is related to their unfiltered ability and desire to connect with people around them. Maybe it's the same energy you feel when you're newly in love or strike up a new friendship with someone you really connect with. What's the secret to getting that back? What's the secret to keeping it?