Down here in Southeast Florida we have a lot of panhandlers. Our moderate weather makes the living endurable, if not easy, so not only our own homeless but those from other states tend to migrate south and stay here. Unless the local constabulary chases them off frequently — some do, and some don’t — you can bet there’ll be a man or woman with a sign at the side of each expressway ramp, or in the median of major suburban intersections. Most of them hold signs ranging from simply “Please Help” to long dissertations regarding their health and the needs of their families.
Many people view these folks with contempt, and I’ve heard disparaging remarks about them from people you’d think would know better — people supposedly in recovery. The attitude seems to be sort of I-did-it-why-don’t-they, as if overcoming adversity were just a matter of reading the right book and following the directions. While that’s a partial solution to addiction, it doesn’t work that well for lost jobs and mental health problems.
I have to ask myself how close I came to living that way, and for how long. The fact is, I was separated from that same situation by only a few days, perhaps weeks, and a good insurance policy. I mean really — if my life was so great, why would I have ended up in treatment and recovery programs? Clearly there was a problem, and that is also true of everyone in recovery to one degree or another. Some of us were just luckier than others.
One of the components of spirituality is compassion. It’s not up to me to decide if those unfortunates are going to buy booze with my “bum bucks,” (as we call the dollar bills we keep tucked over the sun visor of the Elantra). There were times when I’d have bought a beer, sure, but there were plenty of others when food would have been my priority. In fact, toward the end, my wife and I were living on hot dogs from the convenience store across from our motel — where we were living after being evicted from the house we were renting, after we got evicted from the one we were buying. During that time (and since) we’ve no doubt been judged by many, but that hasn’t qualified us to become judges.
Some wounds are on the outside, some on the inside. Judging the “bum” on the corner isn’t part of my job description, any more than my right to judge you. And since I’m tired of being judged by others, becoming the arbiter of someone who’s trying to get her next meal (or beer) shouldn’t be part of my repertoire either. I just hand them a buck when I can afford it, and say “good luck.” I’d hope people would have done that for me, back in the day, had my bottom not been just the least bit higher.
There, but for the grace of God…