Despite writing (some might say preaching) about the importance of generosity in building relationships, I’m still learning how to give. A recent interview with the Pope made me realize how much more I need to practice. He was talking about giving to the homeless.
“He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.”
I had written about homelessness before, and about my own need to develop compassion instead of pity, detachment, or whatever else you might feel when you pass someone who is suffering.
A few months later, I was walking home after one of my worst experiences in recent memory. I was in something of a daze, replaying the events in my mind, when I noticed a homeless woman out of the corner of my eye. It was cold. She was sitting on the sidewalk, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by a shopping cart full of things and several bags. I turned around and walked back towards her. I took a Kind bar (of all things) out of my bag that I normally carry as a snack, and asked, “Would you like this? I like them very much.”
She looked me in the eye and smiled a slow, beautiful smile. “No thank you," she said. "I’m okay.”.
I wished her well, turned, and kept walking. My eyes teared up. How could she be okay? It was cold and she was on the street! How could I not be okay, when I was healthy and returning to my home and family?
That moment taught me that giving doesn’t have to be one-sided. It can be an exchange. For the offer of a bit of food, I got perspective, a lesson in giving without judgment or expectation, and a glimpse of our interconnectedness and shared humanity.
Whenever I have something to give, whether it's a compliment to a colleague or food to someone in need, I think of that woman on the street. And I carry Kind bars with me ever since.