THE WOMAN SAT on a rolled-out sleeping bag beneath the protective awning of an office building, just barely out of the cold winter rain. Her hair, brown and curly, seemed bouncy in a way that she did not. She was perhaps 30, dressed in jeans and a pretty, if frayed, pink fleece jacket. She might have been a backpacker ready to embark on a weekend camping trip—except that she wasn’t. An array of plastic bottles holding water and GatorAde sat next to her on the sidewalk. As I watched from the window of my dry, warm car, she rooted through a large backpack and pulled out an extra pair of socks.
Jeff and I were in Portland, Oregon, visiting friends for the weekend. We were on our way to meet our pals at an art museum and had ventured down a side street to find parking. While Jeff stood on the curb punching buttons on the machine that issued parking passes, I considered the woman. Like many of the homeless people I’d seen recently, she seemed surprisingly normal. I stuffed a little money into my raincoat pocket, got out of the car, and walked toward her, not sure at all of what I meant to do. I could feel Jeff shoot a questioning look at my back.
For nearly five years now I have been studying what it takes to help people, whether their needs are physical, financial, or emotional. I’ve traveled widely and talked with dozens of people about their efforts to help others. I’ve written a book on Seva, the art of selfless service. Yet I can still get knocked off balance when I encounter someone in terrible need, including the homeless.
Not long ago I tended to walk briskly past street people and panhandlers. I told myself this callousness was a means of self-protection. The practice of ignoring the needy has become so pronounced in our culture that some of them are trying a new tack. I’ve seen a young man brandishing a cardboard sign that reads, “Why lie? Need burger and fries.” In Portland a grizzled guy standing at a busy corner just off the freeway held a crude poster that read, “Ninjas have kidnapped my family. Need money for karate lessons.”
The woman in pink fleece was doing nothing at all to attract attention to herself. She simply sat, a small, dejected figure with her back against a polished granite building. I found myself drawn to her not because I knew how to solve her problems—I didn’t—but because my heart told me I should say something to her. This doesn’t always happen when I see someone in trouble. There’s no way for me to predict the heart’s timing. When it gives me a nudge, though, I’ve learned to act on it.
She looked up, surprised, as I approached. No one else was on the street. It was Saturday, and the usual office workers were absent. Our eyes met. Her puzzled expression turned to confusion, with a tinge of fear.
What on earth was I doing there? “Hi,” I said, at a loss.
“Hi,” she said quietly.
I stood for another beat or two. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She gave a pained smile. “What do you think?” her smile said. “I’m sitting here on the street, alone.” The woman herself said nothing.
“Do you need anything?” I knew she needed everything in the world. But I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She looked up at me, this time with a braver smile. “No, I’m okay,” she said.
She was clearly not a veteran of the streets. If she had been, she would have asked me for money. I stood for another few moments, fingering the dollars in my pocket, swaying a little on my heels. Giving her cash seemed exactly the wrong thing to do. At last I said, “I just wanted to let you know that I see you. You’re not invisible.”
She looked away for a second. When her gaze returned to me, her eyes brimmed. “Thank you,” she said, and ventured another brave smile.
I smiled and turned back toward the car.
Every day each of us receives myriad opportunities to help others. Some are obvious, such as when a person trips and falls right in front of you. Some are as subtle as a light spring breeze. None of them, I’ve learned, should be wasted. The tricky part is overcoming hesitation and fear, not to mention the disquieting suspicion as you walk away that you’ve just been foolish.
Was I reading too much into the woman’s teary expression? Had my expression of kindness helped her at all? In the end I knew it didn’t matter. None of us are called to be perfect practitioners of service. We’re simply asked to try.