Two nights ago, I had dinner with friends in San Francisco. The restaurant was on 19th and Mission and on that one block alone, there were five maybe more homeless folks roaming the darkened street. I peeked around the corner and there were several more coming out from the shadows.
They were on the hunt for something: money, food, companionship, perhaps their sanity, but mostly they were looking for things left behind—forgotten, and ignored just like them. That night, I clung tightly to my boyfriend’s hand. The street had suddenly taken on a look of desolation made more eerie by the fact that it was far from empty, and there were people littering about. The sort of denizens with a look of hunger that made you wonder briefly over your safety. The streetlamps cast a harsh yellow glow, never enough to fully illuminate. There could be someone standing beyond its shallow ring of light, and you would never know. I tried not to catch the gaze of the passersby; carting what few belongings they had as they continued on their search for that something.
I’ve written a few snippets here and there on my Facebook Page of my encounters with the homeless. I hate to see them living the way they do. Tears me up, makes me angry, shameful, and feeling like I must immediately consider my life and be grateful for all the little things I have. I never have to worry about my health or having someplace to call home. I never have to worry about where or when I’m going to find my next meal. So if you ask me if I give money to the homeless, the answer is yes. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t make any real, impactful changes, except give someone a meal, or a drink for one night. The same man I gave ten dollars to the other day will be out on that street begging again tomorrow. And yes, that does hurt me to some degree. Sometimes I give them food. A few have turned it down. That begs the question: is my effort a waste? Just a way to assuage the guilt I feel? And why do I feel guilty?
I’ve thought about it. And thought about it some more. Sometimes it keeps me up at night. I can do more. I can volunteer—spend weekends giving food to the homeless at some shelter. Or something much less time consuming, like giving minutes of my time listening, being that one person who decided to be kind, to notice them for the human beings they are instead of walking a wide arc around them, being rude, or insulting. But I don’t. I haven’t. I want to, and I know one day I will.
Where does this empathy come from, I wonder? It must come from somewhere deep.
Maybe it’s because of my roots. Where I’ve come from. You see, I wasn’t born in the U.S.. I was born in a little forgettable province in a third world country, the Philippines. I won’t bother to name the particular province because no one knows it and it makes for a convenient answer to security questions I’ve made to all my bank accounts. (GAH!) So now, I really can’t say.
I moved to the U.S. when I was six, and thus have a unique blend of cultural views being of Filipino heritage crudely reshaped by an American upbringing. My parents worked hard to spare us from a life of struggle in the Philippines. And I guess, along with the natural Catholic guilt embedded by my religion, and constant reminders of “how lucky I am”, it’s easy to see why I’ve developed this high level of empathy.
But I digress. The real truth is, I don’t like to see suffering—animals and humans alike. And honestly, who does? As a writer, I see the world around me a little differently than most. I suppose, it’s just a whole lot harder for me to look away unscathed and unaffected. I see, and I look away, and for several minutes, my chest feels tight, like my heart has swelled, eating up the space where my lungs are supposed to be. I take in all of the emotions, the mood, the faces, the movements, and short breaths between words—because as a writer, I’ve trained myself to be that way. To collect and inspect, and to file away for later use.
Despite all the belongings we have on this earth, all the money we accumulate: one aspect we can undoubtedly all relate to, is that no matter the course of our lives, we’re all searching this world for that special something.