I believe that seeing the world through the eyes of my child helped me start to face my prejudices and learn to treat people more compassionately.
I grew up in Los Angeles, where I learned quickly to be cynical about people asking for handouts. I read articles about networks of panhandlers who grossed more in a week than I earn in a month of teaching in a public school. I knew teens who played at homelessness on weekends but went back to the suburbs to shower. Consequently, handing out money to beggars has never been my practice. I have no interest in funding someone’s addiction or hobby, nor being suckered into someone’s scam.
Once I moved to Colorado and became a mother, the homeless man with a backpack and cardboard sign embarrassed me in front of my daughter, strapped in her car seat behind me. His presence at the intersection tore the careful web of love and beauty I had spun around her life. I searched for a cow grazing in a field or a dog on the opposite sidewalk, anything to distract her from the beggar. But as she grew older, we saw new faces, new backpacks, new signs.
I tried to explain how some people don’t have homes, may be mentally ill, or can’t hold down jobs. But she could not understand how it was possible to drive by a person who was asking us for help. Hers was a world of compassion, empathy, and generosity. What do you mean he doesn’t have a home? Where is his mother? Who are his family? According to the world-view I had helped her shape, the solution was obvious. He should be home in our guest room, in our soft, warm, spare bed. I tried to explain why I wasn’t willing to do that, how I couldn’t risk the safety of our home on a stranger. But mama, she replied, if he is hungry, we should feed him. It was that simple. And through the words of my Golden-Rule child, I realized that looking away was not the answer to my discomfort. To begin to become the person my daughter already believed I was, I had to stop averting my eyes and hand out food.
My husband and I now try to keep a stash of energy bars and bottled water within reach of the drivers’ seats of our cars. When we pass a person begging on the street, we roll down our windows and often receive blessings in return. Regardless of my own prejudices, I cannot begrudge any member of my species the right to eat and drink. I believe that seeing the world through the eyes of my child helped me look with compassion at a problem I had not been willing to face. By trying to live up to her expectations, I began to address my own discomfort in the face of overwhelming social issues, and to start to learn to respond from a place of kindness.
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