I was working on Ohio State’s campus with an associate I then considered a friend, a wealthy, self-professed ‘born again’ Christian. Some months prior, he had sponsored me on a religious retreat, called an “Emmaus Walk.” But that’s another story.
We broke for lunch and despite other more interesting campus options, he chose Wendy’s in the Student Union. (Bummer, but he was buying). We ordered up and found a booth.
As I braced for the inevitable gastrointestinal assault, a young woman approached us. Gaunt and sullen, her face conveyed lessons well beyond its years. Her deep-set eyes were dull and tired; her voice, near a whisper, sought lunch money in words my colleague ignored. Fumbling through my pockets, I found her a couple of bucks and after thanking me, she vanished.
Then my co-worker asked, “Why on earth did you do that? She’s probably just gonna’ go get stoned.” “Could be,” I said, “but what if she really was hungry? How do we know, for sure?” He said, “We don’t–but I just don’t trust panhandlers.” Pale, grim and obviously poor, no ‘spark’ was evident in this woman. She seemed an empty vessel.
Now, I’d known this guy for some time. I knew that he read the Bible. I asked, “Does God expect us to judge those who ask for help?” No response. I continued. “Should we automatically assume that she’s a crack head or a drunk?” I asked. “And even if she is, do we refuse to help because she could be lying about being hungry?” “No, I just think giving in to them can help support their addictions,” he said, adding that if I’d seen what he had as a former deputy sheriff and EMT, I’d understand. I granted that as a possibility but also suggested that perhaps what he’d seen needn’t have soured him so…because after all, despite what may be apparent, we just don’t know the whole story. We simply can’t. The discussion ended there but I’ve thought about it countless times since.
Free will bestows on us a limitless capacity for compassion as well as for many far less productive emotions. We’re offered frequent opportunities to do something meaningful. They can come from nowhere and pass by in a flash. We each react based on what we believe, which in turn, helps define who we are.
Our world increasingly celebrates ownership. The more we get, the more we need. Over time, I’ve found that I prefer comfort over accumulating the biggest pile of stuff, stuff I’ll ultimately leave behind. I’m slowly working on “divestment” of my extraneous stuff. If you were limited to a shopping cart, what possessions would you insist be in it?
Conservatives alternately panned Obama’s “Change” mantra or took it up as it fit their talking points, with the overall effect of blunting it. But “hope” and “change” are fundamental. Without hope, life is merely routine. And if we stubbornly insist that the potential for affecting change be within our grasp, it can be.
Looking at the world as it is and believing that being kind and helping others can either improve it or our chances of an eternal reward (for those who accept such a notion) underlies many faiths. Whether Christ is your savior, a prophet, a wise man or a fanciful fable, the story of His birth nevertheless bespeaks hope. We suffer an imperfect world. Regardless of what we believe, each December reminds us that things can be much better. And even the humblest of beginnings can help make it so.