Society’s problems won’t be solved by looking away

Someday I plan to take a tour of the United States to see how different people greet each other on the street . My only substantial experience is in the Midwest, where nearly everyone you meet on a sidewalk manages to look at you for a short moment, and to say hi if they’re especially daring. I imagine things are different in other parts of the country – with one universal, and uncomfortable, exception. The simple act of observing and being observed by another human can be a crucial moment for one or both parties, but I suppose that – just like anything else – we don’t think about it until we don’t have it anymore.

Like I said, my only substantial experience is in the Midwest. More specifically, my formative years were in a town of less than 2,000 people, and there were few people I passed on the sidewalk whom I did not know. The small-town atmosphere is great for many reasons, but it did leave gaps in my education. On family vacations to New York, Chicago, San Diego, I was shocked to discover skyscrapers. I was shocked by multi-lane streets and the existence of “safe” and “dangerous” neighborhoods. And I was shocked when I observed people begging.

It was not the people themselves that bothered or confused me – I’d already learned about homelessness and begging, in theory at least. What shocked me as I watched these people was that nobody gave a damn. Tour guides, city locals, even the people I knew and loved simply walked right by, not only failing to give money to those holding out rattling McDonalds cups but also failing to even look in their general direction. As a child, I was outraged to see this. As an adult, I still am – and yet I do the same thing.

On walks through European cities, in the quiet corners of Minneapolis, even at the exit for 75 in Moorhead, the ugly fact that others live in hard circumstances reasserts itself into my relatively easy life at the most inconvenient times. That is what these moments are to me, to us, these are the moments we want to avoid. We don’t want to think about wage gaps and psychological traumas, we don’t want to sit through more economics soapboxes on whether to blame Reagan or Clinton, we don’t want to mentally divide the money in those cups into averages spent on food and drugs. It is too painful to meet a person in need, to be on the giving end and to have to choose between cynicism and naïveté. But the other end cannot possibly have it any easier.

I once heard an actor speak of his experience posing as a person begging so that he could study for a role (he gave the money earned to a charity). This man dressed in worn clothes and found a patch of sidewalk and sat around all day, and he made a small amount of money. Nobody abused him. He was not arrested. But he was struck, deeply affected, by how few people looked his way. Even those who gave did not pause or even look, just cast their money to the side and kept walking. And sometimes I hear people complain about begging, how it’s a cushy job, and they cite per-hour dollar figures and make it all seem like a fine enterprise. And they leave out the part that would stick with me, the part that I cannot imagine: to sit on a crowded street in a crowded city in a world teeming with people and to find nobody, not a single person who is able to look you in the eyes.

I’ve heard of people who give money, people who give job printouts or grocery store gift cards, of people who give gifts and time and sincere moments of kindness. And I’ve heard of others who think the entire enterprise is a scam, who refuse to be duped out of a single cent. I waver between my options every time the choice is presented to me. Almost every time, I come away thinking that whichever decision I’ve made was the wrong one. There is no easy answer, and I’m not here to give one.

But maybe we could start to change our problems if we all stopped looking away.

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