That's how I felt on my walk in to work this morning.
On my way to the subway, I passed two homeless guys in their sleeping bags. They were just lying there asleep in this tunnel on the side of the road. Hundreds of people were walking right by them not giving them a second thought. I looked into the face of one of them as I passed -- haggard, worn -- greasy black hair. I imagined what he must smell like, and I was immediately repulsed.
But that repulsion quickly turned on to me, to myself -- to all the judgmental thoughts I have ever had about what it means to be homeless – the possible mental illness, or drug addictions, or simple laziness. How cruel I am to walk by and judge them like that?
When I was a teenager – a very sheltered, privileged teenager – I took a trip with a church group down to ride ATVs in the Yuma sand dunes. We were at a McDonalds and some of the guys were hopping around and jumping over the top of a big pile of rags, blankets, garbage, and clothes – just ‘cuz it was there. Suddenly the pile moved, and the guy inside it sat up. It startled us, but we just laughed – especially when the guy proceeded to stumble step-by-step into the middle of the busy road and start directing traffic. He didn’t have a name, or a family, or a story. He wasn’t even a real person, as far as we were concerned. He was just a joke -- an untidy ornament placed in our path for the sake of our own entertainment on the way to the dunes. Funny stuff, huh.
A year or so later I was driving with my friends in their car. I must have been 15 years old. For reasons I no longer understand, we thought it was funny to throw raw eggs out of the window at cars and buildings and people while driving by at about 45 miles-per-hour (a drive-by egging – thank you Mrs. Doubtfire). When we hit some random guy in the face as we drove by and then turned around to see him staggering aimlessly in the middle of the road behind us, we just laughed. It’s an image that is burned into my mind over 20 years later. But it's not nearly as vivid as the homeless guy sitting on the side of the road with his cardboard sign and his sleeping bag – a bright red one – a nice easy target. As the egg left my hand, his eyes met mine, and then WHAP! Too late for me to take it back. It was Christmas time.
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these…
Merry Christmas brother, I thought to myself. I felt awful. Ashamed. And although I have had far more than my share of thoughtless cruel moments in my life since that day, I never did anything even remotely close to that again.
But that thought gave me little comfort on my walk to work this morning. Maybe I’m not hopping around and jumping over their piles of clothes. Maybe I’m not throwing eggs at them from a moving car. But I didn’t stop. I didn’t help them. I don’t really even believe that I could if I tried. Cruel. That’s what I am. Cruel and insignificant.