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daily awkwardness

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There are many people begging in the streets near where I live. Individuals and groups sit near stores and the pub. Each time I go by, I’m faced with a dilemma. How do I reconcile my desire (my vow!) to be of service, to practice compassion, to alleviate suffering, with the fact that no amount of money I give will make a dent. In addition, my critical voice notices cell phones, to-go coffee cups, dogs, and cigarettes in plain sight and, in many instances, alcohol and drugs not far behind. Sometimes I feel anger arising for being ‘made to feel’ un-generous and privileged.

I’ve watched myself react in different ways: avoiding certain corners altogether; crossing the street in anticipation; avoiding eye contact as we pass, saying hello and gesturing sorry no change; giving a few coins; giving all the change in my pocket; picking up a muffin and offering it on the way back. None of these are satisfactory solutions; often the same person sits at the same spot each time I walk by and there are more people looking for a handout down the street.

I’m at a loss of what to do. How do you handle these situations? What would be ‘right action’ from a Buddhist perspective? I’d be grateful for your advice and insights.

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8 responses »

  1. I don’t think there is any one answer, given that even the same person will be slightly different every time you pass them. But you might want to reflect on why you have tangles inside about all this because I’ve had similar responses many times, and for me, those avoiding, assuming thoughts and actions all come down to not wanting to engage, and also feeling like I “have to” engage in a certain way.

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  2. I struggle in the same way with these situation, with similar responses to you. I have come to the answer that it is like some endless hole that I personally can’t fill with my actions whatever they are. As you point out they are there next day, next week. And also from a recent encounter trying to help a homeless woman find shelter I realized that the problem ran much deeper. I realized I cannot fix anyone.

    I did hear a talk by someone who did the “bearing witness” exercise of Bernie Glassman, by spending a weekend on the street and one of his comments was how invisible he felt, how people didn’t want to look at him or acknowledge his existence and that after awhile this contributed to feelings of despair.

    So I do try to say hello, to offer my presence, and like you, sometimes I offer some change and sometimes not. There is an aspect of seeing people like this that for me, is heart breaking and yet I realize that comes from my own assumptions of what is a good life.

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  3. I agree with Carole…although i’m not faced with it on a daily basis, when i am, i try to at least look at the person, smile, and say ‘sorry no’ if i’m not contributing at that time, instead of just ignoring them.
    When i was in India many years ago, travelling with Baba, a sadhu friend, one day he said “see that person lying down there..go up and give them some money”
    I did, and their surprised look and then big smile was a wonderful experience for me…the fact that i acknowledged their presence touched them.

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  4. I read a post on Carol’s blog a while ago about this. I like what you said then and now Carol and I’ve been practicing it ever since. Acknowledging the person’s presence with eye contact and a smile or a word or two. I think that is something to give them, and maybe enough.

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  5. Thank you for bringing this up and the comments shared. I, too, feel deeply affected by not only the misery around me, but my helplessness towards it. I concur with the unfulfillable “void”, yet, we cannot turn our eyes the other way. To me, it is the experience of the suffering of suffering, the suffering of being, and it is deep, and it is painful.

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  6. Over time I have come to realise that – “… cell phones, to-go coffee cups, dogs, and cigarettes in plain sight and, in many instances, alcohol and drugs not far behind…” and the like, are ‘survival props’. I have surprised myself with behaviour I never would have expected of myself when I have really been in great pain – sometimes numbing is the only way I have been able to cope. So, I ask myself – who am I to judge what someone else feels is necessary for their ‘survival’, to numb the pain, to get through another awful day. If I don’t feel it will help them to contribute to those things, then I don’t need to, that is my choice. I think it’s only when I am very sure of that response in myself that I am able to cope with the feelings that arise – either from them, from others or from within myself, which make me feel guilt or anger or whatever.
    I still feel the pain of not being able to help, but perhaps acknowleging, and feeling the suffering is a way I can contribute? Because not many are willing to do that. It is an inner process and difficult because no-one else will see my contribution, so it looks like I am doing nothing, nevertheless, I am doing what I can. I agree with others about not just ignoring anyone I encounter in this kind of situation… there but for luck or circumstance, go I.

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  7. It just struck me that this was posted on ‘Good Friday’ – A day many Christians spend in fasting, prayer, repentance, and meditation on the agony and suffering of Christ on the cross. In South America, Central America and Mexico, Jesus’ death is dramatically recreated by Catholics on this day, making it as real as possible. There’s the sense of being there with the one who suffers. Seems appropriate to be considering Suffering and our response to it on this day…

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