Feature Article

Paradise

by Ismael Manzano

     Do you consider yourself a decent person?  By what measure do you judge your decency?  Do you open the door for women and children, spare them the effort of trying to do it themselves?  Do you say thank you and please when speaking to someone?  Do you think that defines decency and morality?  Do you think that’s enough to view yourself and others as kind, that you say a few nice words, that you hold open a door for someone who could probably do it for themselves, and that you do a good deed for someone who may not need your help?  I do.  But does that make us truly decent?

     What about those who need more than an open door or a polite word?  What about the homeless, the sick, the disabled, the ones we ignore on the street, tune out when they beg for help, and try to avoid eye contact with because it’s to unnerving too see them, too much of a hit to our untroubled lives?  Sure, its easy to be polite to someone who really doesn’t need it, someone who can live without a kind world, but when it comes to providing a simple, basic need—food, clothing, water, shelter—we can’t turn our heads fast enough or turn up the volume of our ipods—which cost more money than most of them have seen in a long time—and pretend we never heard them. 

      Now it isn’t like there aren’t reasons that we tell ourselves to justify our actions, and it isn’t like those reasons are not without merit.  When it comes down to it, they are asking you to part with something that you have earned and give it to someone who hasn’t done anything to earn it, but look downtrodden.  You, the benefactor, should be a little discriminating with your money, right? 

     The most common reason is skepticism, or the “that one’s shoes are better than mine,” excuse.  I’m guilty of this one myself.  I don’t know whether that means that they are not as poor as they pretend to be or that it’s time for me to buy new shoes, but whatever the case, if someone is begging me for money and they have brand new Timberlands, I just don’t feel like handing over a dollar.  I want my homeless shoeless and reeking of urine before I’ll cough up a dime.  Does that make me selfish?  Of course it does, but that’s the way I’ve been conditioned, the way most of us have been conditioned.  They have to be so pathetic that we feel sorry for them and want to give them money, but not pathetic enough that it too much for us to bear—that its disgusts us to even look at them. 

They have to be better actors than any in Hollywood, more creative than any writer,  and a better speaker than any politician.  And for what?  For a few pennies, a dollar here and there?

     And so what if they’re lying?  If they’re telling a story to get money out of you?  If telling the truth doesn’t work and you were starving wouldn’t you change your story or try a tactic that worked for the homeless guy on the 6 line?  I would, if I thought it would work.

     And so what if they’re going to use the money you give them for drugs or alcohol?  If they want to ruin their lives, that’s on them, not on us.  It’s hypocritical to say you don’t want to give them money because they’ll just use it to hurt themselves, when we still leave them there to rot and die of their devices. 

      The point isn’t what they would do with the money or whether they deserve it more than the next guy—or at all.  The point is that WE do something, that WE try, that WE offer or show compassion.  It’s on them what they do with the money they receive, and not really for us to judge what they’ll do with it. 

     Of course, the ideal would be to help them, get them off the street, offer them something tangible, something lasting, like shelter.  But in reality, no one wants to give that much time, effort or heart to someone who truly needs it, when there are so many people out there who would be perfectly satisfied to call you a decent person just for opening a door for them.  You do a simple task and get your ego stroked at the same time.  Unlike with the homeless, where you usually walk away feeling like you haven’t done enough anyway. 

     I’m guilty of it to and probably will always be guilty of it.  I have my prejudices and I doubt they’ll ever truly disappear, no matter how aware of them I become.  Maybe some of you out there will read this, realize your own mistakes and be stronger than I.  Maybe some of you will go that extra mile—by them a meal instead of dropping a quarter in their cup, offer them your coat when its really cold outside, if you have a thick enough sweater to make it home okay, or give them directions to a nearby homeless shelter instead of just walking away and pretending we don’t see them laying there. 

     In the meantime, enjoy your life, try not to feel guilty and think about what you’ve read here the next time someone ask you for spare change. 

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