the homeless man and you

I talked to a frightened mammal today. His tail was between his legs. Maybe it was you.

I saw him before he approached me, actually. Hovering nervously next to the building where they sell the lottery tickets and 5-hour energy shots. The drab overcoat and week’s worth of scruff weren’t as telling as his body-language. He was scared and nervous. He didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. He just didn’t know what else to do instead.

As I finished pumping the gas into my car, he approached me. “Hey, I’m really sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you had any change or anything, because I really need some food.”

“Come with me in there,” I said, pointing to the building, “And I’ll buy you a sandwich.”

“I’m not allowed in there, sir. I’ll do something for it, though, really! I’ll wash your windows…”

Just then a small, professional, middle-aged Indian man came out of the building, piping “Hey you! You must go now! You are not allowed in here!” like a brand new plastic pipe-organ, practicing scales in trochees.

So the mammal scampered away. I could almost see his tail between his legs.


This kind of thing always raises very complex emotions. It’s hard not to feel bad for someone in so much pain and with so few options. But it’s also hard for most people to imagine a sequence of events that would lead a person to that place that does not involve a series of bad choices along the way.

So how should one react in that situation? It’s not my place to say. I’m not going to say you should give a guy like that food or money. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t.

But I will say one thing: don’t you dare look down on him. Don’t you dare pretend like he’s different from you.

It’s an easy defensive maneuver, and everyone does it unconsciously on some level. “That could never happen to me,” you think, “Because I’m just not that kind of person.”

But that’s a lie. He is you.

Have you ever felt trapped? Have you ever been scared? Have you ever been so embarrassed you couldn’t bring yourself to do what you knew was right?

Remember the prank you pulled at work that you didn’t get fired for?

Remember the education that your parents could afford?

Remember the uncle who’s connections meant that your teenage shoplifting experiment ended up getting you just a “warning” instead of a record?

Remember the neighborhood you lived in where you could make friends with people who weren’t drug dealers?

Everyone makes bad choices. And so have you. Some you got away with. Some you didn’t.

Just remember that things could have gone differently for you, in each of a million, billion different moments in your history.

In an alternate universe, that scared mammal on the curb IS you.

You, if you had been caught at that prank in your youth. You, if you hadn’t grown up in a neighborhood without drug dealers. You, if you had made just one more bad decision than you actually made.

You, if your life had gone just a little bit differently along the way.


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  1. Emerson Collins says:

    I always find your posts to be thought-provoking or at least entertaining whether I agree with them or not. There’s a degree of measured logic that you generally follow that I greatly appreciate in giving consideration to either the important or the whimsical.

    Thus, I find myself somewhat disappointed in this post. I have no issue with the basic underlying statement “you should not look down on people.” However, the “there but for the grace of God” idea, is generally insulting and negates the impact of free will in the decision-making process, regardless of circumstances. If every single individual were to live through the exact same set of experiences and end up at that exact place, then that supports the argument that you cannot look down on any individual, because they had no choice, and no impact on how they ended up there. It also means none of our choices matter, and all of us are exactly the same.

    Look, I’m not saying look down on the homeless or downtrodden, and I do completely agree that we can have no idea when looking at someone how they arrived where we find them. It may even be true that within all of us is the capability for the right set of circumstances to drive us to that exact place. But the series of questions you posed as to why each of us did not end up there as well smacks greatly of venturing toward white man’s burden territory, or the modern socially liberal equivalent. Not every homeless man is a drug addict, and not every trust fund baby proves undeserving of the wealth they inherit.

    I think you’re statement that it is, “You. If you had made just one more bad decision than you actually made.” bears out the point. We are each responsible for our decisions – all of them, the good, the bad and what they add up to. But isn’t that the point? Viewed from a pessimist’s perspective, each person’s total of bad decisions weighed against the advantages they had from the outset equals the place they end up in life. That isn’t fair, but it’s truth. The more you start out with, the more mistakes you can make. And we as human beings judge each other at all phases. We see each other, make our assumptions and judge each other to be “above” or “below” one another. It’s not specific to the interaction with the homeless.

    So, I just think it would have been enough to say “don’t look down on someone – anyone – without knowing where they’ve been,” or “walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge his journey,” without needing to sling the guilt with it. Because by presuming that at some point in my particular journey that I have escaped a slip-up or been afforded an undeserved opportunity or preferential treatment, and this is the only thing that kept me from ending up begging for food, aren’t you judging me, in the opposite direction maybe, but in the same way you are asking me not to judge him?

    In that, I always enjoy your thoughts.

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