It was a sticky evening in Penn Station and I was in a hurry to head back home. As I weaved in and out of the crowded subway station, a young woman sitting in the corner caught my eye. I glimpsed at her cardboard sign saying, ANYTHING HELPS in black marker. Unlike many homeless people I see, she stood out: young, long silky hair, jean shorts. For a quick second I asked myself what a woman like her was doing on the streets — she looked like a daughter who would make any mother proud — but as did many of the commuters that day, I kept on walking. What could I do in the ten minutes left to catch my train?
It didn’t take long for me to wonder more about her. What was her story? What brought her to that point in her life, begging for the kindness of strangers to get her through the day? How is she surviving? I was in shock. Actually, more to the truth, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. And in that instant it dawned on me: it could have been me.
In my most desperate times I have thought of many things to escape my suffering. On a good day it was a move to Africa, volunteering for a community in Tanzania. On bad days it was self-injury, the threat of suicide, and yes, living on the streets. I don’t know why living on the streets made any sense to me. I guess I thought my friends and family would be devastated if I permanently left them and by living on the streets perhaps it would soften the blow of me disappearing. I don’t know. It was ill-conceived. It was a desperate idea. I came close to realizing this escape plan, but the thought of my loved ones stopped me — it always did. I am lucky to have them watching over me. And I know that not many people have that.
But that’s not the point of this post. Neither is what I did to help that young lady out. The point is why. You see, I never did find out her story. I never asked her why she was homeless or what struggles she endured to get there. What struck me so hard was that upon seeing her alone in that corner, I connected to her suffering. I didn’t know anything about her and yet, I knew that she was suffering.
I wanted her to know that I knew. That I acknowledged where she was in life and that it was okay. That I was a witness to her struggle and because of that, she still had her dignity. In no way did I understand what it was like to be her, but I wanted her to know that there are people out there, just as well, fighting a very hard battle.
That evening, before I took the 5:08pm train home, I walked back to that young woman. I was scared, nervous, unworthy.
She looked up from the book she was reading. Her eyes were tired, her face run down but still beautiful. She couldn’t have been over 22 years old — too young, I thought, to be on the streets.
“Are you hungry?” was all I could muster up.
I gave her a bag with food, protein bars and bottles of water. She thanked and blessed me and began rummaging through it all. I felt like I was bothering her, that she needed privacy to eat, so I let her be and walked away. You think I would feel good about what I did, you’d think I’d feel proud, but I was ashamed I didn’t do more. I thought myself a coward. I thought I had the opportunity to help her out in some way, but I chickened out.
And then I remembered what my therapist said. It’s only rain. Don’t take away a positive because of your negative banter. Your character is not flawed. You simply gave someone something that they needed. But looking back, I’ve come to the conclusion it was more than that. For a moment you recognized her as another human being. For a moment you acknowledge how difficult her life was. It was small, it was tiny, it was little but it was something. In fact, that’s the only thing you wanted during your own anguish: compassion, understanding, dignity.
In order to reach that connection with another person we do not have to overcome suffering — my own and her own suffering were still there. What I had to do was overcome the anger I had towards my suffering. I couldn’t search for meaning and find it without first letting go of how unfair, how fucked up, how unrelenting the demons are. People who suffer and are able to understand their suffering beyond the pain are able to reach out to others, create action — even have a life worth living.
And I think that’s what people who suffer greatly can offer the world. In that moment, when all I could offer was a little food, I found my meaning. I did something small and tiny, but it was greater than myself. We can do something greater than ourselves, something that only we alone could provide. We need to find out what that is no matter how long it takes, no matter how much suffering we endure, we must continue on to continue on. Because underneath all that suffering there’s an opportunity and that opportunity brings us to a new level in understanding of ourselves and other people. It guides us back to our hearts, back to compassion, and back to dignity. And that, I believe, is a remarkable thing.
The lady in the corner? I don’t think I would have acknowledge her presence if it wasn’t for my own issues. I wouldn’t have been able to identify with her suffering, causing me respond by taking some kind of action. Giving her something was the way I said, Your suffering is no longer yours alone, just as my suffering can no longer be mine alone. Because even in our darkest hours of despair, we can never be thrown away. Just for a brief moment, we were there together. And I’ll remember that for a very long time.