It’s an all too frequent sight. A man or woman standing at the end of the highway exit ramp, holding a sign “Need money for food”, “Will work” or “Please help my family”. Exposed to the elements, looking haunted, he or she stands, hoping that a decelerating driver will reach out the window with an offering.
And so I found myself on a sunny, cold March day, at the top of a ramp not far from my house, an arms distance away from a disheveled weather-beaten man. The light had just turned red so the two of us were together for the duration. Unable to tolerate my discomfort with his distress, I looked away, and prayed for the light to change quickly.
When the red light changed to green, I was not relieved when I drove away. Instead I was filled with guilt, and ashamed at my lack of generosity. I decided to drive back to the highway ramp, but this time I would bring nonperishable groceries. I drove to the nearby grocery store and filled a bag with granola bars, nuts and juice boxes. After circling back, I finally exited at the top of the ramp, where a short time before I had refused to help. But the man was gone; I was left with the bag of nonperishable groceries and a bitter taste in my mouth about my own behavior.
What caused this hesitation in generosity and compassion? Why hadn’t I listened to my heart? Instead, I was caught up in judgment of a man whom I did not know and somehow decided that any amount of money I handed him through my car window would not be put to good use. And so I looked away and then I drove away. I missed an opportunity to be generous and compassionate that cold day in March, but I learned an important lesson.
It doesn’t matter that I am unable to solve the complex social problems that cause people to stand at the top of the ramp, begging for help. Neither does it matter that I am unable to track where my small amount of money goes, when I give it. The next time I find myself at the top of the highway ramp and someone is holding a sign “Need money for food”, I am going to pay attention to the woman or man who is suffering and my heart is going to help.