by Maisie Smith on November 26, 2015
I was rifling through the kitchen pantry, classifying an overwhelming collection of non-perishables into one of two categories.
“Hmmmmm. Pickled beets.” Slight pause. “Give.” I placed the can on the dining room table. Spaghetti-o’s that were just a tad (3 months) past the expiration date. “Give.” A bottle of specialty hot sauce labeled Ass Reaper. “Keep.” Wait. I took a better look at the plastic skull attached to the screw cap and knew there was no way in hell my family would ever uncork that shit.
And so it went as I separated the “keeps” from the “gives”. It was November and time to exercise my yearly benevolence by putting together a box or two of food to take to the local homeless shelter.
When you sort through a full pantry, it’s always surprising the things you find… most of it stuff you didn’t even know you had. Canned salmon. Pie filling. Gourmet muffin mixes. Bags of rainbow-colored lentils. Protein bars. Artisan peanut butter.
I stacked the “keep” items in precise rows, organized by meal with all labels facing forward. Working retail had taught me about the power of presentation. I then took stock of the collection of “give” items on the table. It was all crap, stuff that had been gathering dust in the dark corners of the pantry for months, if not years. Stuff I knew my family would never eat.
But maybe someone else’s would.
“The homeless are lucky to get anything,” I grumbled to myself.
“Lucky to get shitty food” is an alarming combination of five words that should never, ever go together. But that was my modus operandi as I started packing the “give” food into boxes, feeling incredibly proud of my charitable giving.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught my young son watching me while quietly munching on his morning Pop Tart. He didn’t say anything, just watched as I stacked the food into boxes. Our eyes locked just as I picked up a can of expired water chestnuts.
I held his unassuming stare for a few moments. Then looked at the cans in front of me. And then looked at my bulging pantry.
As I focused on the rows of food stacked high… in a pantry that was always full and always accessible and always privy to my incessant complaining about how “we have nothing to eat”…I was overcome with a sense that my world was not quite what it seemed.
I was ashamed. For thinking that the homeless people of my community actually deserved crappy food. For mistaking my ignorant selfishness for generosity. For teaching my son to keep the best for himself.
I began gathering jars of corn and chili and tuna fish and macaroni and cheese and hipster muffin mixes and boxes of “good” cereal and peaches and cake mixes and fancy jellies and loaded them into the boxes on my table. I filled five of them that day, and still my pantry was full.
Plentiful beyond belief.
It’s incredibly easy to say, “The poor are lucky to get what I’m giving. They had nothing. Now they have something.” Or, “Why should the homeless eat better than me?”
Are we now tenured members of an all-knowing panel on humanity? One that deems what other human beings deserve?
We’ve all seen homeless people on corners with signs that read “Anything helps” or “Why lie? I need a beer.” And we catch ourselves thinking, “Yeah, but if I give them money, they’re just going to buy meth with it. Or go to the McDonald’s and blow it on a value meal.” We want to know that our money is going to good use. We want them to use our money for what we believe they deserve, for what we think they need. And instead of dealing with our internal tug-of-war, we stare straight ahead or start fiddling with our phones, careful not to make eye contact.
Here’s the thing. We’ve all had lousy days. Most of us have not had lousy lives like so many of our homeless population have. Who am I to say that a person doesn’t “deserve” a Big Mac? That they must buy a bag of apples instead? Maybe at that exact moment, a hot hamburger would be the very thing that would make them happy. Will they use money given to them for alcohol or drugs? Perhaps. But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll take what I can offer and buy a $1.99 loaf of bread for themselves and a bag of dog food for their loyal four-legged friend that stands by them on the coldest of street corners. It’s a chance I’m willing to take.
I don’t get to choose how they will spend the money.
I choose to simply give.
• • •
I was lucky to grow up in a nurturing family that valued individuality and accomplishment. I was taught from an early age to work hard for the things I wanted in life. I was given the privilege of pursuing my talents through lessons and classes. My dad helped me with my math homework every night. I had a warm bed to snuggle into at the end of each day. Every morning, I was fed a good breakfast. I had shoes that fit.
I was so fortunate. Still am.
What if I had a different set of parents? What if I grew up believing that I didn’t matter, that I was trivial, that I had nothing to contribute to the world? What if I observed from an early age that alcohol and drugs were the best way to deal with the problems of life? What if I had been born into a generational cycle of poverty and indifference?
I don’t have the answers. I only know that I am fortunate. Beyond measure. And because of that, I must give freely. I don’t have the luxury to say, “You don’t deserve my time or money because I don’t know how to compassionately deal with your situation.”
Right now in America:
The homeless don’t want your fucking expired SpagettiOs. They want to know that they matter. That they are valued. That they, too, deserve good things in life.
To be made to feel like you are special solely because you are a human being… that is powerful stuff.
Give, my friends. Give so freely that it cracks open your heart and makes it 23 times bigger. Give what you’d want to receive. Give the best of what you’ve got, whether it’s time, money or the food in your well-stocked pantry.
I believe in you.