Life Lessons In Odd Places

I’m a bleeding heart.  It’s no secret that I’ll do pretty much anything for a charitable cause I support – just ask my right calf and scalp.  However, I always hate asking people for money like when I’m tabling at conferences for the SSA or when I’m trying to squeeze every last gilded drop out of blog readers.  I’m just sure they’re annoyed as hell to be asked to part with their cash and that I’m bugging fifty people for every one who begrudgingly gives something, probably just to get me off their back.

However, I had an experience this morning that changed my opinion about that within about five seconds.

Homeless people have always been a conundrum for me.  I want to help, but I also don’t want to enable.  This is why, for a period in my life, when somebody on the street asked me for money I would decline to give them cash, but would offer to buy them food instead.  To my surprise, almost universally, they rejected food and moved on to ask the next person for money.  Eventually I quit offering.

This morning I violated my PJ-only weekend pledge by throwing on a shirt long enough to go replenish my supply of Raisin Bran Crunch (that stuff is like sweet ambrosia).  On the way into the store, a homeless man sitting in the entryway made eye contact and approached me.  I was already halfway through telling him I don’t carry cash (which is true) when I realized he wasn’t asking me for money – he was asking for an apple.  I had to ask him to repeat himself, this time with me paying attention.  He repeated that he just wanted something for breakfast.  I told him I would go get him an apple.

I bought him a bag of groceries, mostly out of gratitude.  By the time I got outside he had been kicked off the property and I had to chase him down.  I handed him the sack and thanked him, which caused him to do the double take this time.  I thanked him for allowing me to help.  I never stopped wanting to personally do something small to help people in his situation, I just so seldom get a genuine opportunity to do so where I feel I’m not contributing to destructive behavior or reinforcing a lie.

On the way back to my car, I wondered how many others are out there who want to help feed the destitute, to spread secularism, or to keep music in the classrooms, or what have you.  How many times have I heard people tell me how strongly they wished their high school had been home to a Secular Student Alliance affiliate?  The answer is a lot.  Asking them to contribute to that cause isn’t nagging – it’s affording them an opportunity to help.  It’s giving them the chance to make a difference that many of them are wanting and waiting to make.

It is truly strange and more than a little humanizing how you learn things in the oddest ways sometimes.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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