“All real living is meeting.” — Martin Buber
At World Fantasy Convention, three friends and I ventured forth from the hotel in search of un-conditioned air and reasonably-priced food. Our path took us into a pedestrian mall with a lively street scene. Two encounters stand out in my mind. The first was with a homeless man. As he asked us for money, his voice was low and dispirited, as if he had no expectation of a response. He seemed on the edge of giving up hope. Usually I feel uncomfortable giving cash, although if I have the time, I may offer to buy the person a meal. I didn’t have the time, but something in this man spoke to me. Without questioning that inner prompting, I turned back, dug in my purse for a dollar, and offered it to him. It seemed to me that a kind word and the recognition of our common humanity was as important as that small amount of money. As I spoke to him and met his eyes, I saw them fill with tears. In broken tones, he told me of how he had lost his job and left his home, rather than be evicted. I don’t know if he was telling the truth or if he later used the money to buy drugs or booze. I’m not sure it matters. The moment between us, his response to being treated with kindness, was real. For all I know, it might have been the tiny nudge that kept hope alive.
Further up the street, a group of young adults in uniform-like black sweats was holding forth in loud voices, lecturing all within earshot, preaching their religious beliefs. Their voices echoed against the buildings and their eyes were hard and angry. As we passed, I tried to imagine what I might say to them — “Live and let live”? A few people on the street shouted back at them. My friends and I thought of all sorts of snappy retorts, none of which would have amounted to any real communication. I realized this was a way of diffusing the discomfort caused by the abrasive behavior of these young people.
How can speech that is combative to the point of hostility be answered? It seemed to me impossible to have even a token conversation with someone who is browbeating me at the top of his lungs. Isn’t it necessary for both parties to be willing to take turns, to listen to one another? It did occur to me that these young people, berating all within earshot for their sinful ways, were not at all interested in hearing anyone else’s point of view. I wonder what would have satisfied them.
Afterwards, I was struck by the contrast in the two encounters. Certainly, the evangelists were more intent on pounding home the evils of this world and terror of the next than in giving to the poor. But there is this: reaching out to the homeless man was easy. His manner was gentle and humble. He spoke out of need and then gratitude. The angry young people, on the other hand, presented a much greater challenge, one I was not equal to. I still do not know how I might be present with them without getting drawn in to acrimony and name-hurling.
Charity is easy. Seeing the common humanity in people who are screaming hatred at you — that’s hard.
The drawing is by Isidre Nonell (1872–1911)