I denied a hungry man food the other day and I don't like what that says about me.
There's this Indian curry joint near my workplace that I'd been meaning to try for months, but never had; then one day a friend suggested we meet there for lunch and I was glad for the chance. I fell in love (metaphorically) with their delicious Chicken Spinach curry; they've figured out just the right combination of meat, vegetables, and sauce and, more importantly, it's spicy. And a little vinegary (ooh acidic foods!). It's not often that food is sufficiently spicy, so when it is I rejoice.
When my husband heard of this culinary find, he (being a supreme lover of curry) immediately wanted some, lamenting when he discovered that the restaurant caters to the business-lunch crowd, which means no weekend or evening hours. I promised that at my next chance I'd bring some home for him.
The following Tuesday I did just that. Curry in hand, as I walked out the door, I encountered a man standing in one spot, the lunch-time crowd swarming around him. He turned toward me and leaned forward slightly, bringing his hand to his mouth in the universal sign for eating. He didn't speak, just made the gesture, his eyes asking the question.
My educational life programming contains a lot of conflicting routines about what to do in the face of human need. My one great desire is that charity be eradicated because it's no longer necessary; because we attain a level of humanitarian action in this country that leaves every human fed, protected, and provided for. (And because I would then be free to stop worrying about it.)
But I've also been indoctrinated with such beliefs as "There's plenty of help for people who aren't lazy enough to get it." "They're just going to use the money for booze." "This isn't my problem - why doesn't he go to the mission?" "Why doesn't he just get a job?"
Sound familiar? It should - our Great Society has been feeding us this line in various ways for most of this century, far as I can tell. This notion that everyone can pull themselves up and out with enough hard work and want. You've got to want it 110%. That kind of thing.
But I know that's mostly bullshit. Not everyone can pull themselves up. Especially not in a society like ours that's stacked against the sick, infirm, and marginalized. Especially in a recession.
So I have conflict where there should be none. As a person striving toward compassion and acceptance--to see people as people and not irritations or objects or inconveniences--there should be no question about what I do. Because, honestly, why would I ever withhold food from someone desperate enough to ask a perfect stranger for it?
The embarrassing truth? Because it had been promised to someone else. Because I didn't have the cash on me to buy another portion. Because someone else will take care of the problem. Because I let my old programming make a decision for me instead of stopping to take a breath and seeing the person in need right in front of me.
It had been a long time since I felt shame. I still feel it.
And now I'm questioning my decision to write about this because it feels rather... dirty and enterprising. Like I'm capitalizing on this man's misfortune to make an observation about life and myself and us.
I'm not sure I'll be able to eat that curry ever again.