It seems too much at times; the brokenness of the world over and over again bays at me like a thousand wolves inducing sadness in my heart. Perhaps it’s all about perspective, the inequities I once paid lip service to and concurrently ignored is being made evident before me in spectacular high definition reality. I wish I could go backwards at times, to unbite the apple of awareness and revert to the banalities of popping bottles, taking selfies, and using social media to boast about the drinks and the haute cuisine I was indulging in just two years ago.
But life had other plans that materialized in due time while I was chasing materialism and vacuous dreams. One second on even grounds only for fissures to subsume my life and consume me into a seemingly perpetual state of uncertainty and austerity. I became the statistic I once raged against from the safety of ivory towers and corporate comforts. I fell through the cracks and found myself into the caste system of America; I became the very invisible people I used to ignore on my way to the Department of Treasury.
I understand it really, why some would rather feed stray puppies than nourish the huddled masses and teeming homeless. It’s too much for the mind to process and handle; the minute we focus on the brokenness, it’s hard to close our eyes and pursue our own happiness. The feeling of helplessness can be all consuming; the more we try to help the indigent the more we become the Dutch boy pluging leaks in the dam only to be damned by the world’s inequities. I’m not judging for there too I once went as I diverted my eyes from the impoverished—seeing past them as I gave a dollar and went on my merry way.
Avoidance becomes self-defense for all of us in this way; I mean I tried to befriend homeless folk when I was in DC not too long ago. But the dissonance it caused my soul was too great, to share a meal with Mr. Black, a homeless veteran in DC, or partake in a conversation with a once virtuoso trumpeter turned into a vagabond on 9th Street was concurrently a blessing and distressful. Each time I spent time with the poor, I would be undone by the feeling of helplessness and despondency. I delved between two worlds; one day chatting it up with the “invisibles” and at other times walking by them as if they did not exist. To be honest, I found it easier to dehumanize their existence than to humanize them and realize their tribulations.
Then life took a swerve and I found myself on the curves as I joined the army of the “undesirables”—bracketed by insolvency and distress. The very same folk I once strolled by, ignoring their plight as I harped about an injustice in far off lands, became my neighbors. Broken concrete became my home only to move up to find shelter in missions.
I look back in bemusement at times my heart smoldered in anger as I felt the “injustice” of a 2% pay raise while making six figures as a consultant not too long ago, all the sudden the true face of injustice shrouded me in anguish as hardship became my new normal. I look back in utter disbelief when I think back about the endless times I spent $20 a day at Starbucks all the while ranting and raving about the unfairness of economic policies on Facebook while sipping lattes and eating biscottis.
This though is not an article of my own sorrow for the remorse that eats at my spirits is not my own circumstance. Though life is by no means a pathway of rose petals and gold, I am neverthelss fortunate. Through God’s blessing and providence, the past two years of adversity and misfortune did not break my soul and invert my smile into bitterness. Though there are countless stories of turbulence and distress, I nonetheless never felt abandonded by God’s grace.
I understand now more than ever that strangers are the angels who are sent to bathe us in warmth when we feel the coldness of this world. Where friends and close ones sulked into the night, strangers and angels in South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, New York, and Colorado and a few other states I set my feet in during the past 20 months provided for me and sustained me during my darkest moments. I never had to beg or had to put my hand out, the same way sparrows are kept I was taken care of by a procession of kind souls.
It was random acts of kindness and true charity, not of money but of love and goodwill, that refused to let my heart grow cold. If I smile now it’s because my smile was salvaged by mind numbing givers and names I can’t remember who gave love I shall never forget. But my testimony is diminished in my heart at times when I take notice of the procession of homeless people that I encouter on a daily basis. It breaks my heart frequently seeing people who were broken by their circumstances and have turned to bottles and pipes to drown out their sorrows. What can I do, I feel overwhelmed by the gravity of it all. I feel useless at times as I give a dollar from my pocket trying to alleviate the pains of others as I myself still drown in difficulty. This is why I get it, why I understand how it is easier to turn away than to truly address the suffering of this world.
Just yesterday, I ran into a homeless man playing the guitar as I was walking to the library. Feeling a tinge of sadness in my heart on the day of Ethiopian Christmas and beset by solitude, I did not want to acknowlege the plight of someone else. So I tried to revert back to old habits, to walk by and pretend this man was not playing the guitar as a means of eating lunch. But I could not just walk on by, so with my headphones on I decided to pause and, at the very least, give him a dollar. The ear plugs and music became my barriers—a shield to protect me from internalizing the guitarist’s melancholy.
All the sudden, the music I was using to shield me from his sorrow turned to clangs and melodies turned into gut wrenching staccato. This man who was being ignored as he plucked his guitar in isolation was at first befuddled when I extended my hand to give him a dollar. Bewilderment gave way to elation as he quickly stretched his hand to accept my Gena present to him.
As he put his fingers to mine to take my donation, I was taken aback at that exact moment of exchange. His digits were drenched in crimson; the guitar strings paid back his picks by picking apart his skin and cajoling blood from his fingertips. At first I reflexively withdrew my hand but then shock gave way to compassion and I gave him the dollar and wished him good luck—I shook his hand disregarding the condition of his fingers.
As I walked away, I was undone by what I witnessed. The pavement behind me was strewn with tears that I shed—fleeting emotion coaxed by an unexpected encounter. This is the helpless feeling I used to avoid as if it was a leper colony during the times of Jesus. Unable to do anything more than wish him well, I became enveloped by sadness at the plight of guitar pluckers the world over who serenade us for the sake of their nourishment. Oh lord, I ask you to take away the injuries of the world and to repair those who are hurt grievously. It seems the more that I seek answers, the more I’m beset by questions. Why not fix the wretchedness of the world God and plant happiness in the midst of anguish?
I guess this is why it’s easier to turn away from the homeless and to pretend they don’t exist. When we rescue stray puppies or feed abandoned pets, they don’t remind us of us. But the ones who suffer and shiver in the streets and call newspapers and boxes beds and abodes, that is too much for the mind to process for there too we go if a few bad breaks reduces us to bankruptcy and destitution. So we look beyond them, at once fearful of our own financial anxieties and not wanting to internalize the malaise of the least among us.
It doesn’t have to be that way though, we can’t fix the world nor can we undo poverty in a snap of a finger. But we do our part, the same way countless people in my past helped me with kindness and random acts of love is the same way we can help others who are mired in privation and squalor. It’s not the money that gives hope, just give someone who is engulfed in hopelessness a few minutes of affection and compassion. Let them know that they too matter; if you can, instead of giving them a dollar and walking away, spend just a smidgen of time to know their names and let them know that they are not invisible.
Don’t let your heart turn to ebenezer, refuse to be that stone and instead turn ebenezer into a treasure called love as your give that treasure to someone who is stuck in dejection. This is how we change the world, not in one instance but in small incremental acts of grace and goodwill to our neighbors. Those neighbors reside next door and call home the same pavements we walk on the way to work. Love, love, love; acrimony nor rhetoric will not solve injustice, only love can heal the throbbing wounds of this world. #Ebenezer2Love
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” ~ Galatians 6:9
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.