11th and Broadway is home to a nameless homeless man I have come to recognize on my daily walk to work. He is 50 something, has incredible sparkling light blue eyes, and sits with his head down, knowing any chance of eye-contact or empathy is unlikely. Nameless doesn’t beg for money, he doesn’t come up to you and make himself visible or an obstruction on your mundane daily path to your important job. Nameless looks up every now and then and says “Have a great day!” with the most genuine sincerity. Nameless is lovely.
I decided to take the moral high road and provide Nameless with my charity. $4, the only cash I had. I strolled up to him, eager to see the look on his face, and dropped the money in his clear plastic cup. He looked up and sheepishly smiled, throwing his childish hands up and chanting quietly “thank you, thank you!” He then quickly looked down again, afraid to scare me off with his inferior gaze and too long of a social interaction. I paused (should I talk to him?), but he would not look up again, and so I walked on. I looked back, and saw him return to his invisible existence, wishing every by-passer a better day than he inevitably would have.
I passed him again later that same day.
I walked by slowly, ready for him to recognize me and my generosity. Hey Nameless, remember me!? I gave you cash! He starred at me blankly, wished me a good day, and moved on. He had no idea who I was. He forgot me. I was dumbfounded. Our “selfless” actions are more often selfish rationalizations to make us feel better about ourselves and our privileges. Why was I so eager to see Nameless again? Did I expect a fucking Noble Peace Prize because I, a roofed, named, fed, surviving human, gave this struggling and suffering man four fucking dollars? Would $4 save him? Undoubtedly not. Would it save myself by justifying why I could pass by this man every single day and live with myself? Yes.
When it comes down to it, individual action is small, microscopic–But that’s because we’re not willing to accept that we could do more. I could give this man half my paycheck every single month, but I don’t. Why? Oh I could come up with millions of reasons–“He’s probably a drug addict,” “I need it for food,” “I’ll donate money when I have a more disposable income.” The reality is, we don’t change the world is because we don’t want to change our habits. We don’t feel inclined to nurture and take on the burdens of strangers, and that has come to be a basic trait human of nature–blindness.
Nameless is invisible. Nameless hasn’t heard a joke in years. Nameless forgets what it’s like to look at produce and decide if it’s still good even though its past it’s “sell by” date. Maybe my four dollars will go towards a bag of dope, or maybe it won’t–I don’t really care. What struck me most about today’s exchange was my motivation for doing it. I read a quote once that said you never truly live until you do something for someone who can never return the favor. Was this me living? Why did I feel so sick?
In today’s world, we perceive ourselves in terms of how we think other’s perceive us. Social cues remind us how we should behave–what makes us good. I gave today, so I’m good right? NO. No, because one of the first thoughts that pops into our minds when we act “selflessly,” donate to a charity etc, is “I should tweet about this” and one of the first questions prompted to us post-donation is “Would you like to share this with your friends?” When the fuck did altruism become a 140 character indication of our goodness? It should be pure and raw in its intentions, with no thoughts of how it will make us look or feel. It should be considered a crime (exaggeration–but you get the point) to tell anyone when you donate or give, because that takes away the essence of doing so. I thought Nameless would thank me again, remind me of how benevolent I was…but he doesn’t owe me ANYTHING. I owe him. I owe him because I allow him to suffer every single day, while I walk by on my smart phone, texting my friends about how I gave my cash to a homeless man today and why that makes me so fucking special.
Nameless, I am sorry. I am sorry that I am unwilling to give up everything I own so that you can live half the life I live. And I am sorry that 99.9% of privileged humanity is just as selfish as I am. I wish I was the change I wished to see in the world. I don’t think I’m a bad person, nor do I think I’m a good person, but today I learned that I am not the person I thought I was. I like to think I’m a contributing citizen, I share posts about green energy on Facebook, I give my change to people on the streets, I went to the Global Citizen’s Fest…LOL. But here I am, writing about my moral dilemma, telling every fake friend on Facebook I have that I gave 4 of my precious dollars away today—And that’s precisely the problem.