This morning, a man who is homeless looked me in the eye and asked me for money.
He was tall. But life and plastic bags of stuff had stooped him over. And he had to look up to ask me.
I never know what to do.
Sometimes I give money because I don’t know how else to respond. Or because I want to think of myself as the kind of person who greets an outstretched hand. Or because I want to be left alone.
And sometimes I don’t give anything. Sometimes I mumble, “Sorry,” and keep my eyes away from theirs.
But always, I feel useless. Useless about the tiny size of my dollar in the face of their enormous burden. Useless about the constraints of my heart in the face of this unconstrained pain.
This combination of uselessness and not knowing what to do can harden me up. To the point that I feel interrupted if someone asks. That I cross the street rather than be confronted.
It’s a terrible place to be.
Because we are all asking to be seen.
We ask in different ways: in the work we do, the relationships we have, the clothes we wear.
We all have our hand outstretched. Just not as plainly as the man who asked me this morning.
Japanese director Akira Kurosawa didn’t like discussing his approach to filmmaking. But when pushed, he would respond:
“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”
It’s equally true if you replace artist with fully human.
If I avert my eyes from this man, I discount his basic humanity. And my own.
He is a person in full. A person of innate dignity. A person who wants to be seen. As we all do.
I have a friend who sees by giving granola bars. I have a friend who sees by sharing a meal at McDonald’s. I have a friend who sees by working at a shelter.
There’s no perfect response. No silver bullet for this unconstrained pain.
But we’re not useless.
We can look that man in the eye. We can create a moment where the only distance between the two of us is air.
We can see him for the full man he is. Just as we want to be seen for the full people we are.