A young man with pale skin and scraggly hair walked the lines of the gas station. Approaching me, but standing halfway behind the pump, he quietly offered to wash my windows. Alone, I looked in his eyes and said, equally quietly, “no, thank you.” Maybe with my husband, I would have answered differently.
The man looked down and out.
Another man, with the same pale skin, a greyness creeping across his hair and clothing, his tattoos faded, offered to wash windows to patrons at the other end of the gas station.
They held the washers low in their hands, almost touching the ground, walking quietly from person to person, that same grey sadness across their faces.
They were trying.
They weren’t asking for something for nothing.
I don’t know their story. I don’t know if they were on drugs, or if they were veterans, or if they were choosing an alternative lifestyle, or if they were fathers who had lost their jobs and homes and were just trying to pay child support. I don’t know anything about them.
And even though I felt in my heart they were honest, my default was to answer “no, thank you,” because I must exercise caution and safety.
In opportunities when all the safety factors are present, is our default still to answer “no” to the plea? Or to look away, ashamed to look the person in the eye because we cannot help, or will not help, or have already determined this person’s life story and goals because we have heard of men earning hundreds of dollars a day this way? Or do we wish we could do more, wish we could lift them up, give them a life, a home, a sense of purpose, a job and self-respect, but ultimately feel, helpless in the face of misery, poverty and suffering?
It is complicated because it is about people. And people are complicated, complex, mixed-up individuals, for whom no blame is black and no victimhood is white. We are the product of temperament, biology, circumstances, environment and relationships. Who can tell which third-grader in the room will turn out to be the inspirational father working 60 hours a week to give his children everything and pay for his wife’s medical needs or the wealthy doctor or the recovering alcoholic?
We do not know because as we move forward in life each step along the way is a decision. I choose to step straight ahead, sidestep, redirect, or return to the original path. I might turn around. I might trip and fall. I might not want to get up…ever.
In just the same way, our interactions with others form those steps. Without taking the weight upon myself to judge the life stories of those men, I recall the recommendation from a favorite podcast to serve those we see on the street who ask for help by looking them in the eye, asking their name, asking about their day, and, if safety allows, learn something about their lives.
It goes beyond homelessness. At the store, we can give the cashier a sincere interaction. As a restaurant, we can engage the server in the conversation she walks into while doing her job.
Because they hear us, they see us, but we pretend to not see them. Or worse, we do not see them. We’re so focused on getting through the yellow light, we speed past the man at the Hatch road exit, or the gas station attendant taking so long with each customer or the Target employee who won’t let it rest about the credit card.
We might be able to go one day without being seen. But a lifetime of invisibility wears the dimensions of a heart to a helpless mass and turns its color to grey. I think we can do better than let. Let’s see one another today and take a better step forward.