What are we even doing?

I saw these people on the subway. This really, beautiful woman, black woman, her sleeping baby in a carriage. She was sitting there with her husband, her significant. They were arguing about his mother, his mother’s place in their lives, his mother’s expectations, his mother’s involvement in their child’s life. And he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t get off his pride about himself and his family to listen. She was so clear in what she was saying, calm, direct. She’d thought it out, she was thinking it out as she spoke, she was trying to solve a problem with the man she loved.

For his part he took every opportunity to shut her down. He looked for flaws in her argument and exploited them to make her feel foolish. He played with her words like daggers and looked for openings in her defenses.

I’ve had this experience. My husband can argue with the best of them. He is skilled at winning verbal battles and I have to remind him: I am not your adversary, I am your wife, and you love me; you want us to work through this, so let’s try our best to do that. He forgets. He comes to the field with a loaded vocabulary and eyes flashing like bayonets. Together we remember to put the weapons down.

Watching this couple argue about his mother, I thought: there’s a reason to leave your family. When you start your own family you have to exit the family of your mother and father.

You have to respect and understand, you have to attend to, you have to care for your wife, have respect for your husband, you have to put your wife ahead of your mother, your husband ahead of your father. That’s hard. But it must be done. I don’t know that I’ll understand, or like it, when my son puts his wife, his significant, ahead of me. But I hope I will remember that it is right.

A woman stopped me on the corner near my subway stop. Old, white, short, round in a sad, sagging way. “Can you help me?” She asked softly.

I looked into her eyes and said “no, I’m sorry.” This is the standard thing I say to beggars.

“Okay,” she said as I walked away. I looked back and saw her big eyes, her quivering lip. I thought of God in her, I thought of the love God has for us.

It is with difficulty that I say no to beggars every day. To do it, I make a conscious decision to not see God in them so that I am able to say “no, I’m sorry,” and go about my day.  I thought “that which you do unto the least of mine, you do unto me.”

“What do you need?” I asked, walking the few steps back to her.

She said she’d gone to the check cashing place, but her check wasn’t there. She’d just got out of the hospital and they stopped her check and now they stopped her food stamps. These are the kinds of odd, falling-through-the-cracks, the-devil-in-the-machine kind of stories one hears on the totally broke end of the spectrum. They don’t really make sense, but the ending is the same: her money didn’t come.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

Her eyes got big. “You don’t even know! I was in the hospital for suicide because I’m so depressed and I don’t know what to do, I have no family.” Her fingers were blue, painted with blue nail polish. Her white hair poked out haphazardly from under her wooly snow cap.

“I don’t have any money,” I lied. Not that I had cash on me, but like I have money. I noticed that she was waiting at the bus stop. “I can give you my metro card.” I pulled off my back pack and found it in the second place I looked, pushing aside my food containers, deciding firmly not to give her my lunch. “There’s at least two rides on it.”

“Oh thank you!” She said, slipping the card into her pocket. I felt that these thanks were unwarranted, I hadn’t given everything I had to give.

I pulled my back pack onto my shoulders, and wished her luck. We shook hands and I was on my way. I thought how maybe it was a con, how maybe she stands outside lots and begs with this sad story. I tried to make myself feel entitled to my own lunch. But even if it were a con, it doesn’t matter. Even if she got her check and they didn’t cut off her food stamps, even if she made up this story to generate sympathy for her condition, she’s still got some not-great condition. No matter whether she told me truth or lies, her life is not in terrific shape.

My empathy has a will of its own. I try to shut off, shut down, focus on what’s in front of me, focus on my goals, my career. But I can’t eliminate this connection I feel with the people who need love around me, people who need to be understood, people who need metro cards.

The over current of our culture is such garbage. Rules and judgments, incessant horrible judgements, always judging the other, putting yourself, your views, your perspectives, wants, ahead of everyone else’s. Hating where we came from, hating where we’re going. Cynical assumptions made about people based on skin tone, gender, anatomy, political affiliation. All of a sudden it seems like we’re meant to judge books by their covers, and those books we judge are meant to own their covers, even though the covers belong to the publisher; the covers do not belong to the words.

What are we even doing if we’re not loving the people around us? We are all each other’s problem, and we are the only solution.

The tent at the library.
The tent at the library.
We are huge library fans.
We are huge library fans.
The scene outside the tent.
The scene outside the tent.
All the kids crammed in eventually, and the thing collapsed.
All the kids crammed in eventually, and the thing collapsed.

7 thoughts on “What are we even doing?

  1. Its okay to feel compassionate! Dont turn it off! I’m like you, though, i dont give to beggars. But my husband has offered to take beggars out to lunch and has gotten a few good stories. I try to take food with me when i know i might encounter beggars. 🙂

    1. Hurray for compassion! I’d love to be able to give to every person in need I encounter. But in NYC I’m approached by 3-5 people each day, and the sheer volume of that makes it hard to have something for everyone.

      1. Yeah, I grew up in a small town. It made it tough because I personally knew people who needed food, but if given money, would go get drugs or alcohol. 😦 The tough part is, there are people who really do need food. But the ones who use food money to feed an addiction make it harder for those who need food 😦

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