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Social Class Interactions: To Pity or To Revile.

This morning, I had trouble staying asleep. I decided to go out to my local Dunkin Doughnuts to pick up some breakfast for my family.

On my drive there, I passed an abandoned bar and outside the vacant drinking hole was a shaggy man in raggedy clothes, still sleeping next to his Target cart full of plastic bags. Normally, I don't see many homeless people in my suburban community. Many of my peers look down upon the homeless; I actually witnessed a friend (now, ex-friend) spit on a sleeping homeless man while on vacation after screaming "Get a job, you bum!"

I went inside the Dunkin Doughnuts and picked up five muffins and a small coffee. I had asked the cashier for some milk packets and sugar. I proceeded to drive of the spot where the man had made his night's sleep. He woke up once he heard my car. I looked at him as I stepped out of my car and placed the coffee, along with some milk and sugar, next to him. He looked into my eyes and said, "God bless you, sir." I smiled and wished him a good day.

This small interaction made me think about what I had really done. Had I given that man his morning jolt so he could go try and find a job? Had I given him a free handout that he would ignore?

Therefore, I put my hands out open to you, the TED community, in sharing your views on what I did.

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    Aug 22 2012: You did a kindness to another human being. Try not to overanalyze your motives. Sometimes beauty is just beautiful.

    I used to tell my own kids that you can tell far more about the way a person treats the janitor in a building than you can tell about a person who is defferential to the CEO. I personally want to know those persons who have it in them to be kind to the janitor and to the homeless.

    Why is it so hard to realize that the homeless are often mentally ill? Why is it so hard to realize that mentally ill people are not faking, or malingering? It would be good to try to understand why so many feel so threatened by their difference. Is it because so many people are so insecure about being duped? If you find it threatening simply leave them in peace and stay away. MY own family addressed our confusion by welcoming in a teenager with fragile X, the most heritable form of mental retardation. Those who were the most fearful became his best advocate.

    I am pretty sure that those who I can really love and admire find this sort of compassion within themselves.
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      Aug 22 2012: *thumbs up*
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      Aug 22 2012: Debra, I was just considering writing something similar when you wrote this. In my experience, homeless people more often than not are in their situation due to a health issue that was not of their making. it is not that they "don't know how to fish." Others are runaways who fled abusive situations at home.

      To suggest an unwillingness to look for or work at a job is not to recgnize that getting a job in the last few years has been difficult even for those with an address, skills, and a consistent job history. Every time I pull into a hardware store, I see at least two dozen people at the parking lot entrance waving in the hope of getting laboring work for the day.

      In California in the late 60s, the state government for reasons of budget closed down their very large systems of accomodations for the mentally ill. Sure enough, many if not most of the ejected mentally ill landed on the street.
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        Aug 22 2012: Wow Fritzie, I am sooooooooooo glad you took the time to respond to my input.
        My own is liimited in that it centers on my own education but yours is so much more informed and full. I did a community psychology course as the last of my masters in psych and it indelibly stamped me. I do live in Canada where the winters make it more likely that I see the mentally ill and I know that they fear shelters and what can happen to them there. I also know that people treat me differently =and often think that they can get away with atrocious behaviour because they think my illnesss makes me vulnerable.
        Your point about social conditions is soooooo important. I hope everyone paid close attention. I sure did. Your perspective and experience just enriched me. Thank you .
  • Aug 22 2012: Thanks for sharing your story. I think the answer is that what happens next depends on circumstances.

    In some cases, giving others help will discourage them from helping themselves and increase their dependence on help.

    In other cases a person is going through hard times (who doesn't at some point?) and any help will lift their spirit and help them meet their basic needs so they can focus on solving their problems.

    There are also people that are not able to function in a workplace, not able to follow instructions and they will stay on streets no matter what. Nobody will ever hire them.

    Finally some people are at a point where they are not able to help themselves because of their mental or physical disabilities.

    Given our society has the means and abilities I think we should help these people regardless of their particular situation and when possible we should provide them better education and open opportunities for them.

    I wonder if, beside food, giving that person a book or have conversation with him/her could lead to some learning and change in their circumstance?
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      Aug 22 2012: Zdenek, I think conversation has particular value as it is a personal form of connection that explicitly underlines a shared humanity.

      So many people pass such a person by as if the person were only an object on the street.
      • Aug 22 2012: Hi Fritzie, I agree. I think we, as a society and community, can do so much more.

    • Jon Ho

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      Aug 23 2012: You sir, are a genius!

      You have articulated well the exact thoughts that I have about this subject!

      I'm Jon, pleased to meet you. Can we be friends? :D
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      Aug 24 2012: Given that we will never know for sure in most exchanges, are you advocating that one err on the side of some sort of caution. What should be the default mode?
      • Aug 24 2012: Hi Debra, as I mentioned in my post I think that our society has the capacity to provide for basic needs and education of those people and that is what should definitely happen.

        Any further efforts to help those people depend on a particular situation.

        We do have other groups that also need help esp. children and women both here and around the world where we also need to focus our effort on I think.
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          Aug 24 2012: Yes, Zdenek, and my response is to highlight that the mentally ill often fall through those one size fits all cookie cutter provisions.
          Does your own heart really accept that people sleep on the streets of Toronto in the freezing cold because they did not go to school or can you open your heart to realize that some are petrified at being raped or worse in a shelter - whether through fact or through dilusion the result remains the same.
          How much harm do you perceive that a cup of coffee which might keep them alive does in such a situation.
          This is the next step after walking a mile in someone's shoes to my mind - the realization that they walk in their own shoes as an entirely different person with different abilities and even limitations and strengths.
      • Aug 24 2012: Debra I am not sure what are you referring to. I did say that our society has resources to help these people with basic needs (shelter and food). That includes people that have special conditions like mentally ill.

        I also did not advocate against giving someone a cup of coffee.

        What I believe is a systematic approach and if possible looking at root causes and not just at side effects.
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          Aug 24 2012: I live in a harsh climate where these issues have life and death consequences so you know how serious I can get on that basis. I have learned of some really sad events when people used some default rule of calousness to ward off personal responsibility. Dead is dead and I would rather know that I did what I could according to my own rules of personal conduct. I want that for you too.
      • Aug 24 2012: Exactly. It is unfortunate that while our society is prosperous more than ever before esp. in the US, government continues to make cuts while allowing rich and corporations to minimize their tax contributions which in turn decreases services available to these people.

        We could do much more than we are doing.

  • Aug 27 2012: I have often thought that we should try to teach a man to fish. However, to you question, maybe you gave him hope. I would think that would be the greatest gift as he may not have had much of that at his present situation. You willing to give of your time to do this speaks volumes of you as a person. Maybe if we all did these kinds of spontanious deeds we would have a world we might actually like. Hopelessness is a death of a soul and unfortunately we have all had a short time we might have felt this feeling. I wonder what would be a long time solution for those of feel it more often than not.
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    Aug 22 2012: Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

    However, even though you only solved hunger for one day, it definitely isn't useless at all. One act of kindness can go a long way. When you do a favor for someone else even though you expect nothing in return, this is one of the best ways to communicate the message to them that there are good people out there. It gives people hope especially when there's no baggage behind it, just a simple, trustful act of kindness.
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      Aug 22 2012: In addition you never know how that one act can help a person to keep on keeping on. If it is an act of goodness keep at it.
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        Aug 22 2012: Indeed, and you never know just how valuable the return would be too!

        For example, there's a new student on campus completely lost. I can either choose to ignore him and move on with my life or I could choose to respond and try to help out even if I didn't really know the answer myself. I could even spend more time trying to walk him through some stuff too and put more effort into helping the person. I may have lost like 10 minutes of my time and energy to help the student out, but I gained a great opportunity to gain a great long-term friend. And I've made some really great friends doing stuff like this. You never know what kind of favors they would be willing to do for you when you're willing to do favors for them.

        The other thing, I don't want people to be confused about is that I'm not trying to be like a Mob boss or anything. I like to help out people when I got the time to, and I don't really expect any favors in return, except maybe just have fun time with people.

        Like doing good things lead to good karma, and doing bad things leads to bad karma.
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    Aug 21 2012: Background details: I have two jobs. One is janitorial work and the other is meeting and greeting retail customers. For one job I look neat and well-groomed in clean, sharp clothes. The other job I wear whatever and am not always shaven and combed.
    My point: People react to me very differently depending on which role I am in. Very rarely does anyone notice or speak to me when I am "janitoring", even though I say "Hi"to them. When I am all spiffied-up and say "Hi" to folks they smile and talk to me. I have realized there is probably a deep need for validation of existence for folks whose appearance is less than plain, unattractive even. Perhaps your gift to that fellow was the fact that you recognized his existence and interacted with him by smiling and wishing him a good day.
  • Jon Ho

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    Aug 22 2012: That sleeping homeless man should've spit and yelled back at your friend "pay for my re-education so I can get a well paid job then!".

    I will neither condone nor condemn your actions. Basically what you did was fed a man a fish. It will only fill him up for a day. Imagine if you taught that man how to fish! He will not only feed himself for a lifetime, he will feed others too! And maybe, one day, he will teach other's how to fish... how cool is that?

    By the way, everything I just wrote is allegorical. Unless if you really are a fisherman and wants to take him under an apprenticeship program or something heh.
  • Aug 21 2012: Zachary,perhaps the man needed neither pity or revile. We don't know his history. Life really is very difficult for some people in many situations. I recall someone who taught a good advice: Judge others not as though you will never be judged. Homelessness likely is major disparity for most of them; perhaps some have been down for so long there is little hope to recover.

    You did the right thing to be sensitive to his situation and personhood. Many of us (maybe most of us) would not have been so kind and considerate. It was a blessed act.

    It is one of my most difficult things to do, to live as though all people are valued on High, to daily relate to all people as though they are valued, but yet intellectually I know this is right. He might ignore what you did; then again, it might have empowered him just enough to act for helping himself.

    I once asked a beggar with a dog, standing on a street corner why he doesn't go to a shelter. He said he can't because the shelters won't accept the dog. He and the dog were best buddies and they were going through life together.

    On the other hand, it's difficult to justify helping a person who refuses to help himself. It's a person call within oneself when encountering "down" people. We don't know their stories unless we take the time to learn. Revile not seems like good counsel.
    Food for thought.
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      Aug 24 2012: Refuses or can't? HOW does one know the difference in a chance encounter when you have this one opportunity to help or decline to help?
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    Aug 21 2012: You can answer best what you gave yourself and you can only guess what your gesture meant to that man.
    I can answer only from my experience. My sense of living in a community includes being friendly to people I see, whether the checker at the grocery store, the cobbler, or the homeless person selling the paper.
    This includes short, friendly conversation in passing. It also includes my occasionally walking out of the store and handing someone a sandwich. Or, when I learned a homeless woman, a regular in the neighborhood who sells the paper, was waiting for surgery for lung cancer, I asked if I could buy her a bottle of multiple vitamins.
    She has MS and is a former classroom teacher. I do not think in terms of social class distinctions. I can afford the sandwich now and then or vitamins, and these people in my neighborhood cannot necessarily.
    I fell once on my street- just a weird fall on something slick by someone extremely sure of foot. A couple of strangers ran over to make sure I was okay.
    I have no idea of any social class distinctions among us. To me these gestures are not much different. We are connected within the neighborhood.
    Being connected within the neighborhood is something I value and that gives me joy and I think is something others in my neighborhood, homeless or not, value as well.