i am an empathetic person. not just sympathetic but empathetic. i put myself in another’s position and often feel their pain. there is no need for it other than i have a big heart and i feel a need to help those that want and can be helped. my grandmother always told me that it was a noble quality but an exhausting one and that eventually it would lead to pain. she was right. over my lifetime i have taken many college courses related to people and behavior including sociology, philosophy, child development, humanities and many courses in the sciences. i am an observer. some would say a keen observer. i tend to notice the details. this has all culminated into the fine art of being able to read people. no, i’m not a psychic. no i’m not a profiler or anything of that nature. i’m just able to see what hasn’t necessarily been exposed to me. for the most part, i am able to see past the outside to the inside. i won’t say that i’ve never been duped, but i feel that i have helped plenty of people who were truly in need and not in desire.
my first notable empathetic experience was with one of those horrid commercials relaying the details of a starving child’s daily life. their little bellies distended with want and requirement. i think i cried for days. i couldn’t imagine wanting food and not having it. i had free reign of the refrigerator and pantry and could come and go as i liked. there weren’t many rules placed on the consumption of any one thing and i was mindful of my waste. i couldn’t imagine what their mothers felt like unable to provide for their children. the babies unable to nurse because the mom’s lacked the nutrition to produce milk. i couldn’t get the images out of my mind. the look of hopelessness in a child’s eyes is nothing less than devastating. children hold within them the brightest light and the most beautiful truths. to see that tarnished with unfathomable hunger made me hurt inside. all over. my grandmother suggested that we make a ten-dollar monthly contribution to that particular organization and i was elated. i received a little newsletter of sorts thanking me for my care, concern and monetary donations. i had done a good deed and was proud.
after a YEAR, after twelve months, we received a letter with crushing news. the letter stated that we had been duped. yup, you guessed it: scammed. the company was a farce. they had no connections with anyone anywhere, they weren’t helping anyone but themselves and my money was gone. vanished. never having reached one of those little distended starving bellies. i was more crushed than crushed. my gramma apologized profusely because she knew that my sharing had come from my heart and that my heartache was actually coming from my brain. she vowed that we would not venture down this helpful path ever again. she felt awful because she felt as though she had researched and found a worthy cause. even years later she apologized. needless to say, we were both disappointed.
years later, my grandmother and i were out shopping for “school clothes” and we saw a homeless man. he was in a wheelchair, his legs, amputated just below the knee were visible. his pants had been cut and tucked so as not to leave the oddly shaped limbs exposed. he had on an old army jacket and there was an american flag attached to the back of the wheelchair. he was dirty. he was unkempt and i asked my grandma for some money to give him. she told me no. she said that not everyone on the street was “hard up”. she explained that some people had given up on their life and they used the heartstrings of little girls like me to fill their pockets with hard-earned money that they didn’t deserve. (i think she was a little jaded from the scammers). while we shopped, my mind wandered from my own clothing to his. i wondered how long he’d been in those clothes and when was the last time they were washed. i wondered if he had a place TO wash them. i found myself thinking about what his home might have been like and why he chose not to be there. i wondered what he had done in the military and what it’s effects on him were. i wondered if he’d been to war to fight for my freedom. i wondered a lot.
we completed our shopping and upon return to the car i begged my grandmother to let me share something with this man. she gave me one single dollar. we pulled up next to him as we exited the parking lot and i hopped out. i was too shy to speak, so i just extended my little girl arm. the man took the dollar from me and said “thank you sweetie, God bless you.” i got back in the car radiant with the feeling that i had helped someone in need. my gramma said that i was a good person with a good heart but that i mustn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of. she reminded me, again, that some people just didn’t want to work and would hold their hand out hoping for someone to fill it. she told me “don’t let people mistake your kindness for weakness.”
i don’t remember too many “giving” occasions until much later in life.. when i could make my own decisions and spend my own money. my grandmother was a very kind woman and she was very giving. but honestly, she had no room in her life, mind or consideration for lies or cheats. she didn’t care who you were, what you had done or how bad you felt, if you were honest with her…well, you were good.
another incident comes to mind: in high school, there was a homeless man approaching vehicles in the mickey d’s drive thru. the man approached a red hatchback asking the female driver if she would kindly buy him a cup of coffee. she was actively rolling the window up as he was talking and all but punched the man in the face with her negative response to his inquiry. i was horrified. as we walked inside, i decided that i would eat light and use my leftover money to buy him something to eat. i collected “change” from my comrades and bought as many cheeseburgers as i could. along with the thirst aid of a small beverage. the man had left the drive thru and was standing under a tree on the back side of the restaurant. it was hot out and he looked disparaged. as i stood in line making my purchase for him, i stared at him. i wondered when he had last eaten and bathed. i wondered if anyone was looking for him or cared about him. i wondered his name and age. i gathered my gift and took it outside. i approached him quietly and with my arms extended i said:
“hi. my name is Tanisha. i saw you asking for assistance in the drive-thru and i figured you could use a little more. i bought you some food and something to drink. i hope that’s ok.”
he reached out and took the items from me. his facial expression changing from that horrible hopeless look to that of a simple man having received a small gift. he broke a very slight smile and quietly said:
“thank you. thank you very much.”
he put the drink in his pocket, and removed one of the five cheeseburgers from the bag. he unwrapped it, took a bite, wrapped it back up and returned it to the bag. he put that bag in the other pocket and walked slowly towards the railroad tracks. i felt good. i did not feel that this man had deceived me. i could see that he was hungry and i assumed that he took only one bite in an attempt to not make himself sick and to not waste his meals. he probably had no idea where that next meal was coming from. i was satisfied. i turned to go back inside and found myself being applauded. everyone on the inside watching me through the glass and cheering for my good deed. i can still see his face.
many years later, i worked in a downtown area. there tend to be a following of homeless near parks, water fountains and walking malls. they reap the benefit in the wee hours of the night, taking cat naps, bird baths and eating the unadulterated leftovers of local businesses. i always saw the same guy as i pulled into the parking structure. he was on his way to somewhere unknown from somewhere unknown. once he came into the hotel where i worked. a frequent problem with a public restroom. he came to the front desk and asked if he could use the restroom. because i had seem him so often, i simply explained:
“i’m not allowed to let you do that. however, i know that you are homeless. if you go use the restroom, handle your business and leave quietly without incident, i will allow it. you can’t come back. you can’t harass my coworkers and you cannot act up. just go and leave it at that, ok? or we’ll both be in trouble”
he nodded. he disappeared into the men’s room and a moment or so later he resurfaced. as he left the premises he waved very low and nodded once again. eventually i left that hotel but still worked in the area. i continued to see him. always in the same clothes. i found myself wondering about him one evening and i decided to do something to help. i contacted a friend who was about the same size as the man. i asked for his “good will” clothing and he gave. i had several days worth of clothing and some winter items. i thought ahead and found something for him to carry the items in. i even raided the cabinets and found some personal hygiene items to include with my care package. i went to work early the next day and when i saw him i honked. i waved to him to follow me as i parked my car. he was very apprehensive. he seemed almost scared. i waved him towards me and assured him that he was not in trouble, that i just had something i wanted to give him. i opened the trunk of my car, pulled the old backpack full of clothes from it and handed it to him. his face went from skeptical to surprised. i just blurted out:
“i packed you some clothes. i don’t know if they’re the right size or not, but they are men’s clothes and there’s a belt too. i didn’t bring any underthings for obvious reasons, but i did include some hygiene products in the pocket in the front. i hope this helps you out some.”
i held my hand out and he seemed even more surprised. yes, i wanted to shake his hand. i didn’t know if he was sick, contagious or terminal. i had no idea when he had his last meal, bath or hug. but he seemed genuine to me. he seemed like a guy who needed some help. he wiped his hand on his jacket profusely and tried to refuse me but i stood firm. he finally reached out and we shook hands.
“why? why did you do this for me?”
“you need help, right? i was able to help and so i did. is that ok?”
“yes. thank you. i don’t even know what else to say.”
“thank you is enough. i hope it helps.”
he backed away slowly, slightly smiling. i could tell that it had been a while since anyone had touched him. not a kiss, not a hug, not a hand shake. i wondered why. i wondered if he was homeless because life fell out from under him or if he was homeless because he fell out from under his life. i decided that it didn’t matter as far as i was concerned. he needed help and i was able to do something about it. my part was done. whenever he saw me after that, he always waved. his eyes always said “thank you. thank you so much” even though he never uttered a word. soon, i no longer worked in that area, and i have never seen him again. i can still see his face too.
there haven’t been too many more occasions since then that i have given anything away. mostly because i have needed it myself. my grandmother taught me well. she told me to be kind and to be generous but not to put myself out to help another.
“don’t lend money (or anything else for that matter) unless you can do without that money forever. sometimes people need things but they never know when they can pay it back. if you need it, don’t give it. if you can do without it, then go ahead.”
there has always been a homeless population here in california. they stand out from the rest for obvious reasons. now, don’t get all sensitive about it and think that i’m looking down on them. i’m not. you should know that by now. but back to what i was saying…the homeless population has always looked… well, homeless. perhaps unkempt, needing a bath, a shave, a haircut, some clothes, shoes and a new attitude. they used to loiter outside of small businesses asking for “spare change”. over the years they have come into a whole new way of conducting their business. they moved from the small business entrances to the freeway off ramps with “will work for food” signs written on cardboard. their desire to work seemed more than debatable and eventually they seemed to realize this too. soon the signs changed to more thought-provoking quips like “vietnam vet. homeless. god bless” or my personal favorite “why lie? i need beer.” i recently saw a young woman with a sign stating “homeless. pregnant. don’t judge me.” sadly, it is at this time that i have to hold on to what i have and am unable to be as generous as i once was.
i lived in hawaii for a couple of years and it was an amazing time. one of the most outstanding memories to me was a guy known as “Mango Man” (amazing what you can Google!). he was homeless, or supposedly homeless, but I saw him all over the island. and i mean all over. from one side to the other, by the mall, by the beach, everywhere. he looked to be in his forties and he had one huge dreadlock that appeared to act as a sleeping bag. it was almost as wide as his shoulders and hung down to his knees. it was wide and flat. during my time there, we always waved to him. we always shouted “Mangooooo Maaaaaaan” and threw up a “shaka brah” and he always waved back. not once did he ask me for anything. not a dime. in fact, the homeless population as a whole was different from anything that i had known before. i don’t recall ever being asked for anything, seeing a “will work for food” sign or harassed for “spare change” at any point in my time there.
i have given my fair share of spare change, shared a meal, bought a meal and donated clothes and time to help those in need. i feel that all of this has been possible because of my empathy. if given the opportunity, i will talk to those in need in an attempt to hear their story. everyone has a story and everyone wants to be heard. some people have exhausted every other option and others have turned them all away. i think we all deserve a chance. sometimes a second, third or fourth chance. i understand that occasionally someone is completely undeserving. but more than that, i understand that sometimes it’s just too hard to reach out. it’s painful to even think about being scowled at, yelled at, denied or mocked. and it is those times that i extend my hand and my ear in hopes that just listening will renew their spirit, give them hope and show them that it’s not over.
circumstances and boundaries in my life have changed. i’ve moved a few times, changed jobs a few times and become a mother. my surplus of spare change, spare food and spare clothes has dwindled down to necessities for myself and my son. i have moved my empathy from those abroad to those closer to home. i try to do a little more for my family and friends because they have done for me and continue to do for me. my empathy is strong, but i don’t let it consume me or bring me down. i use it to fuel me into being there for the people who have been there for me. i use it to be a better me. “tis better to give than to receive”, yes?