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What is a mindful approach to homelessness? Perhaps this story can be a meditation on the subject.
Once when I was 21, I saw a guy on the side of the freeway off-ramp with a cardboard sign that said he was stranded and hungry. My heart broke. He looked like a nice guy who just needed a break.
I turned the car around and picked him up. I bought him lunch. As we ate together, he told me that his name was Darren. He told me bits about his life, that he said he lived in San Diego, worked construction, and had recently traveled to Nebraska to attend his mother's funeral. He said that he had a wife and two kids at home but had become stranded in Utah and couldn't get back home to keep working. Without work he couldn't get home and all he needed was money for a bus ticket.
Just a week before, I had executed a brilliant plan to quit my lame desk job, take out a loan from, and travel to Europe to for 5 weeks to be my girlfriend. I didn't have much money, most of what I did have was borrowed, but my heart ached that I had the means to travel to be with the one I loved and he didn't.
So, with my travel plans imminent, pressing preparations looming, and two thousand dollars of borrowed money in my pocket, I did what any naïve 21 year-old, eager to solve the problems of the universe would do: I bought Darren a bus ticket home. I even bought him a ticket to the movies next door to the Greyhound station so he could kill some time while he was waiting the three hours for his bus to leave. I drove away from the bus station feeling great, like I'd really done something to make the world a better place and that I’d really helped someone.
Will Work for Food: Darren Double Take
I went to Europe, had an enchanting five weeks in Austria and Germany, and came back jobless and in debt but in love and happy to be alive.
I immediately began an all-out assault on the job market, desperate to join the ranks of that elite class of society known as “The Employed.” While driving around looking for anyone reckless enough to hire such an unfledged bohemian, I came off the same freeway off-ramp and to my great surprise, saw Darren standing there—same dude, different sign. And though I felt I might regret it, I did it anyway.
I turned around, picked him up (again) and took him to lunch (again). Darren didn't seem to remember me. I told him that I was the kid who bought him the ticket to San Diego about six weeks earlier and I didn't mind telling him that I was a little pissed off that he was still stranded in Utah when I had paid his way home. I asked him why he didn't go to San Diego. He said he'd lost his bus ticket while at the movies. I told him that I felt that he'd taken advantage of me. He just sort of shrugged and went about eating his Big Mac. We went our separate ways.
In the years that followed, I'd see Darren now and again. His hair would be longer and he'd grown a beard. Every time that I saw him, he looked older. Time on the street was certainly not being kind to him.
Still, I couldn't judge Darren too harshly. Despite the fact that he took advantage of me, I couldn't help but worry about him, this guy I didn't know. The more I thought about it, Darren didn't seem all the way right in his mind, you know? How could someone who probably needed institutional help be out there at the mercy of the streets?
For me, Darren put a real face on the entire blight homelessness. He made something huge and abstract very small and personal to me. And I guess that was the deeper realization for this naïve kid who thought he could somehow fix the world's problems with a little pocket money: that homelessness is bigger than buying someone a Big Mac and or even springing for a Greyhound ticket for somebody.
Looking back, I have also learned that it's not bad to try. Even if the results are different than what you'd hoped for. I learned that the answer isn't to stop trying, but to try in better ways. How could I not try when Darren in out there somewhere?
More than 20 years later, even though I think it's wisest to donate time or money to the shelter, I still can't resist giving a few coins to someone down on their luck. And though I wouldn't do it again, I don't regret buying Darren a Greyhound ticket to San Diego.
Yes, I hope Darren gets what he deserves: happiness, a warm meal, and the chance to be with the people he loves.
I'm not the less for trying. Nor am I a saint. Who knows, someday if I'm down and out, maybe some guy named Darren will buy be a Big Mac and a ticket back home.
Compassion for The World Starts Within
I believe the entrance into compassion for the outside world is to first develop a ready and familiar compassion for Self. Yoga is the best way I know to honor and nurture all aspects of Self. It may seem oblique, but in this light, coming to yoga practice or practicing yoga on your own is a powerful preliminary to helping solve the world's problems. It doesn't preclude us from lifting a finger in other ways, it just helps us lift said finger from the place of a clear mind, strong body, and a pure heart.