Okay, so here’s my cure for the world, to end all suffering. Ready? It’s quite simple, really. We just need to stop being assholes to each other. Everyone preaches, “Love thy neighbor,” and we all think that’s so sweet and profound, and then proceed to tell the next man on the street to “Get a job, you lazy bum!” You think telling him that is going to change his life forever? You think he hasn’t tried? That’s your fucking contribution to society? While you strut down ritzy North Michigan Avenue in your ankle-length mink coat, Banana Republic shopping bag in hand, you wonder to yourself, “Why do they bother me? Don’t they realize I don’t have any money to spare? What did I ever do to them, anyway?”
The answer to that, my pretty, is that you don’t care. You feel horrible for all the starving and malnourished children in Africa because you know it’s so unfair, but when it comes to your fellow human being two feet away from you, shivering in the 30-degree Chicago wind, you just don’t give a damn. At least not enough to actually do anything.
So you can’t give a $5 bill to every homeless person on the street. I understand. But the first step is acknowledging that they’re there—maybe smiling or saying hi or something. This way, you’re saying, “You’re human, and so am I.” Good for you. Now that you know that, you can let yourself feel shitty about the situation they’re in. Because they’re human, and they deserve that mink coat just as much as you do.
A couple anecdotes:
1. After being interviewed for a job at Neiman-Marcus in the rich part of town, as I walked out of the building, I came across a woman sitting on a ledge, crying. As I looked closer, I saw she was holding what looked like a 4-year-old child. I went up to her awkwardly and put a dollar in her jar. Then I asked, “Is there anything besides money I can give you?” She replied, “Food for him.”
I wasn’t familiar with the area, so I asked her where I could get food. She pointed toward a mall with a McDonald’s, and told me just to get food for her kid. I said, “Well I’m sure you’re hungry, too,” but she shook her head and insisted it was just for the kid. “I just need to keep him warm,” she said, and burst out crying again.
So I got him 10 Chicken McNuggets and some hot tea. But the whole time, I was observing the fancy designer outfits and Armani suits walking casually past this grieving mother and her child. Just another tragedy of the streets.
Judging the income level of that neighborhood and how poor the homeless woman and her son were, I’d say my income was closer to hers than to those passing by her. Yet I, the middle-class student, stopped to talk to her, while the richest people in the city decided not to bother; they didn’t have time, and they couldn’t afford to help her, anyway.
This story wasn’t supposed to paint me as the good guy in the midst of a horrifying world. Quite the opposite; I barely did anything at all, and if more people did what I had done, they would realize how true that is. If I wanted to be a hero, I’d fly off to Sudan and help the orphans there build homes and jobs. I was being a citizen of my country—helping other citizens, and thus, a citizen of the world—helping other citizens.
2. I had found a very temporary job trying to get paying sponsors for children in third-world countries. The job was degrading and discouraging. 8 hours on the streets approaching as many people as possible, asking them to support children in far off countries, I began to feel as if I might as well have been panhandling. 60-70% of the people I approached were in quite a hurry to be somewhere, or nowhere, it was all the same to me. The other 30-40% just didn’t have enough money. Some were looking for jobs, some were homeless, some were wearing fancy black suits and carrying briefcases—it didn’t matter; in this wealthiest country in the world, they were all broke.