I am sure that most feel a sense of warmth and compassion deep down, after reading the very moving recent story, and seeing the accompanying picture, of a police officer handing a pair of boots to a homeless and barefoot man.
And we should. There is nothing more meaningful and inspiring than seeing an act of true goodness being done by someone, when it is obviously for no reward. (It’s not like the police officer commissioned a photographer to take that somewhat unclear picture!)
So I am sure that most also share with me a sense of surprise and heartache to see this update on the story from the New York Times, of the same homeless man sans shoes once again.
It is truly tragic that this man has fallen on such hard times, especially as it is reported that he is a US army veteran. Yet this story highlights precisely why it is so hard to care for such a person, as I will point out.
The following is in no way meant as a criticism of the beautiful kind act of NYPD officer Lawrence DePrimo. Nor is it a judgment of the unfortunate homeless man Jeffrey Hillman. Rather it is meant to highlight that which we all ought to think about.
There are four possible reasons that I can think of, as to why this man is no longer wearing his new boots.
First, the man’s own admission. Being that these boots are relatively valuable ($100), his ownership of them puts his life in danger. In the dark alleys of homeless New York, how is a man to defend himself against robbery of his valuable possessions? So, in his words, he had no choice but to hide them!
Second, he sold them. Why would a homeless freezing man, sell the only source of warmth for his freezing toes?
It is possible that he was so hungry that he had no choice. Or it may be that he had some other very pressing need that he felt was more important than avoiding getting frostbitten.
Third, possibly he is unwell, emotionally and/or mentally. Perhaps for him being homeless and cold is the only lifestyle that he is ‘comfortable’ with. And being wedded to the life of homelessness and cold he did the “irrational”. Unfortunately there are too many cases of individuals who were helped to come in from the cold and fill their vacant stomachs, set up with a job etc. only to revert back to their former helpless lives in a very short time.
And finally, He may be fully aware of his surroundings. If you notice he is panhandling outside a shoe shop. How much more effective are his collection efforts, when he forces you to contrast his barefoot homelessness, with your warm feet? Especially when you may very well have just bought yourself a fourth pair, or a fourteenth pair; which for the most part will spend its time in the closet.
Either way, when walking past such an individual who is hurting, which decent fellow wouldn’t want to help him? So how is one to effectively help this man?
This brings to mind an important teaching of the Kabbalah. There are different sides to kindness. There is the kindness that we all share. That is the desire to give to others. Whether gifts of friendship, presents to relatives, or even strangers. This builds relationships and is habitual kindness.
Then there is a more advanced level of kindness – compassion. To give to someone who is in need, who hasn’t necessarily done anything to deserve your friendship or kindness. This is the admirable compassion of that police officer.
But both kindness and compassion may sometimes be lacking. It can be misguided and ineffective, as we have seen above. What we need here is a level of kindness that is deeper still. Not to give what I need or want to give, nor to give how and to whom I want to give; but to give that which the other needs to receive.
If the fellow is correct that the new pair of boots became a magnet to thieves. Then actually by giving him a nice pair of new boots one is doing him a disservice. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, a second-hand pair that perhaps even had a hole or two, would be so much more suitable.
If the real story here is that this man is mentally unwell, then what is really called for is some tough love (as difficult as that may be to carry out). This man may need medical help, perhaps some therapy or medication from a professional therapist or psychiatrist. No matter how much assistance he receives with his external symptoms, little will be achieved. Deep love, which in this case would be tough love, would demand leading him to get real help, even if that is not what he says he wants.
This takes thought. This takes understanding. This takes a deeper approach to kindness, compassion and love. Not just to act on our natural instincts, but to be guided by the mind, to assess the appropriate kind of kindness needed by each individual person and situation.
It may be hard mental and emotional work, but the dividends are worth it. This type of love is so much more effective.
So the next time you have an opportunity to give, think about this:
You can give with your hand.
You can give from your heart.
But even better would be, to give using your mind.