Mark sees them every day. They stand on the corner he has to walk around on his way to work, holding cardboard signs and asking for work, food and money.
“For a long time I tried to just ignore them,” Mark told me recently. “I donate to the United Way. I give what I can to humanitarian outreach through my church, and I always participate in community food drives. I know that there are shelters and food banks and all kinds of resources for those who are truly in need. So I figured I had done my part and didn’t need to feel guilty or anything.”
But still, he did.
Day after day he would walk by and see mostly the same people standing there in tattered, unkempt clothing, straggly hair and weather-beaten faces. No matter how hard he tried to close his eyes to the harsh realities of life for those he passed every day as he walked around that corner, he couldn’t help feeling that he should do more.
He started sharing with them whatever change he had in his pocket, and that helped some. But more often than not, his pockets were empty as he approached the corner. And he couldn’t really afford to do much more than what he was already doing.
So one day as he approached the corner without any change to share, he noticed that the man standing there was someone who had been there many times before. Instead of averting his eyes and walking quickly past him like he usually did, Mark approached him directly.
“Good morning,” he said as he extended his hand to the startled man at the corner.
The man looked at Mark warily, and then took his hand and shook it.
“Hey,” he said, cautiously. “How’s it going?’
“I’m sorry I don’t have any change for you today,” Mark said. “But I’ve seen you here before and I just wanted to say that I hope you have a great day.”
“Uh-huh,” the man said. “Well, thanks. I hope you have a good day too.”
Mark started to leave, then turned back to the man.
“By the way, my name is Mark,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Dan,” Mark said. “Take care!”
“Yeah, you too,” Dan said. Then he added, uncertainly: “Mark.”
From that day on Mark made a point to get on a first name basis with all of the men and women who panhandled on that corner. Occasionally he would give them money, but more often he would just pause long enough to greet them and wish them success and safety in their day.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “It didn’t take much time. It just made me feel better.”
And it made others feel better, too. Not too long ago, he stopped to say hello to a woman named Charlotte. When he apologized for not having any change to share with her, she held a gloved hand up and shook her head firmly.
“You don’t need to apologize for not having money,” she said. “Believe me, I understand that. But you give us something no one else gives us. You talk to us. You treat us like normal people. You don’t act like we’re invisible or scary. That’s worth a lot.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone is going to have the same kind of positive experience if they try to do what Mark has done. But there is something to be said for treating all people, regardless of their circumstances, with respect, kindness and dignity.
“The only kind of dignity that is genuine,” said Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dag Hammarskjold, “is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others.” Even when you see them standing there every day.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com.