empathy

How A Homeless Person Taught Me Real Empathy Means Giving Up On All Your Prejudices

Artwork by  Tomoyoshi Sakamoto

Artwork by Tomoyoshi Sakamoto

We all have qualities in us that we are proud of. And then all of us have some imperfections that we are not so proud of. Last night, I got a little late at the office. By the time I got down at the train station and started my 15 minutes walk towards home, night had already set in, and the roads were already deserted. I am generally not paranoid about small things, and walking alone at nights has never been scary for me either. But yesterday was different. I had the sense that I was being followed. But then I thought my brain was playing games with me.

When I reached halfway, I bumped into a woman. At about 5’4 and 40 years, she looked malnourished and fatigued. She started walking along with me and started asking for monetary help as she had not eaten in two days. “Others ask for drugs“, she said “I ask money to eat food. I don’t do drugs, I am just a victim of domestic violence. He beats me up and does not give me money or any food to eat.” Then she opened up her bag and started showing me all the stuff that was in there. “See, I have no money, I have nothing to eat. I am so hungry. Please give me some money to buy food”.

I wanted to help her, but I never give money to anyone. I don’t know how will it be used later on. She told me she doesn’t do drugs, but there was no guarantee that she won’t buy alcohol with the money I give her. I had no basis to judge the truth in her story. I suggested we go to any shop nearby, and she can decide what she wants to eat, and I can buy that for her – but I will not give her money.

She thought for a moment, and then agreed. “I want to eat pizza”, she said. We walked to the pizza shop nearby, but not surprisingly, it was past its closing time already. “Okay, there is a deli nearby I know of. It will be open”, she suggested – and it was then when I took the detour. We walked to the deli which was a few blocks off my regular route.

There were just one other person in the Deli shop besides the owner and his daughter. When we walked inside the deli – I heard the daughter whisper to her father “she is here again”. I didn’t realize they were talking about the woman with me then. I told the woman “pick up what do you want to eat, and I will buy it for you”. She chose the biggest possible packet of Oreo biscuits – which was justifiable given she has not eaten in two days. She handed the packet to me and I walked to the counter to pay.

And then the horror started. The woman got into an altercation with the owner’s daughter, and I heard her repeatedly telling the daughter – “that lady is going to pay for my stuff. Do you mind if that lady pays for my stuff? Why should I go out of the shop? Do you think I am trying to steal stuff here?” As I was about to make the payment, I saw her standing there with 3 more non edible items to be billed. I was baffled. I didn’t agree to help her with her grocery – just buying her something to eat. I told her politely – “I promised to buy you something to eat – and that is what I am going to pay for – not everything”.

The woman was already in a rough mood after fighting with the daughter, and she started pleading me to pay for additional stuff as well. Anyhow, I stood firm with my decision, bought the Oreo biscuits, and handed the packet to her. I asked her to keep the remaining items back on the shelf and walk out of the store with me – at this point afraid that she might cause harm to someone in the store, or the store owner might call the police as the daughter looked threatened by our presence. She obliged, kept the remaining items back on the shelves, and walked out of the store with me.

After we came out, I found myself alone on the deserted road again – this time with that woman. I didn’t want to feel threatened by her – she was just a starving middle aged lady whom I had just helped buy some food. I hated the feeling I had at that very point in time – the feeling of trying to run away, the feeling that I might get attacked for the 10 dollar change that she saw me collecting at the counter, the feeling that she was following me from the starting – from the train station. I just wanted to be home, safe, inside those locked doors where she will not find me.

I bid her farewell, and took the longer route back home, so she would not know where I lived. I walked really fast – afraid that I might be followed. I made a game plan in my mind on how will I tackle her if she attacks me or on how will I tackle her spouse if they were in this together. I made a mental note to not leave office at this time for at least a week, or not to take the same route back home – as she might find me again on the way. I was paranoid, and I was terrified – and at that point in time I had lost all the trust.

I made it back home safely yesterday, and today – and I am sure I will make it back home safe everyday. Yesterday was probably the first and the last time I saw her. She was really a woman in need, and I made the right decision to help her as I could. This act would have made me happy at the end of the day, had I not become so paranoid and scared by the end of it. I thought I was helping a lady in need, but it was the other way round. She brought out the darker side in me, showed me how my prejudice was taking control of my thoughts and my ability to think.

I never consciously knew that I was prejudiced, an imperfection in me that I would never be proud of. I am not like that, but may be I am. And may be it is now time to change and try to really trust everyone regardless of their financial situation and needs. At the end of the day, it is all about what kind of a human do you want to be. I want to be a more “human” human.

Submitted to ArtParasites by Shivee Chauhan