From October 30, 2015.
'Twas the night before Halloween and I was on my way to Northfield to meet up with a friend. Standing outside in the dark, there you were. I pulled a hard left turn, followed by one of the most awkward parking jobs I've ever done (it involved a few extra turns, a loop, and backing into what I'm not sure in retrospect was a legitimate parking spot), and walked over to talk with you. I admit I was not in the most sympathetic (or is it empathetic?) mood.
As we small-talked, you mentioned your characteristic refrain of your unstable health. I was sad to hear your woes, sad to hear your body has rejected two transplants (for which organ, I wasn't clear), and sad as well at my reaction. This blog post is going to be the real me, with no make-up covering my struggles and opinions that may be, perhaps, judge-worthy.
To put it bluntly and unlovingly: how does an unhealthy, non-working and non-employable older man come in line for a transplant (twice) in front of younger patients who, given a chance at life, might change the world? (a child who, with the gift of a transplanted organ, might become be the next Steve Jobs, or Mother Theresa, or Rosa Parks, or...) I suspect I'm lost to the dark side of judgmentalism, but it just plain bothers me that you were given two, and possibly soon three, chances at a transplant, when so many people are waiting on organs (over 120,000). Even in the time it will take me to finish write this blog post, another person will die waiting on a transplant. (My frustration is now assuaged marginally after researching and learning that, of those on the waiting list, less than 2000 are children. Statistics generated from US Department of Health & Human Services.)
And then there is the sheer dollar amount involved. Hospital stays are expensive, surgeries are expensive, the new special medication you're going to start is ultra-expensive, and even before we first met, all those trips to the ER you've always talked about are expensive. Someone's paying for those. My inner-curmudgeon asks, "is it my tax dollars?" And am I okay with that? How should my faith influence (dictate?) my response?
My curmudgeon also wants to know: at what point does this system break? How much public assistance can (or should) be given to non-productive members of Community until it becomes untenable? Can a Community sustain itself with that kind of drain of non-productiveness?
For my girlfriend, the answer was easy: you're a child of God, and that makes you worthy. Period.
I probably should be okay with that answer, but I find myself still struggling. Of course, then I also must face the question: "who am I to say who's life is more worthy than another's?" Am I more worthy than you? I mean, my own Crohn's treatment is expensive, the brunt of which is borne by my insurance - is it my place to say "I'm a productive and contributing member of society, and therefore I'm more worthy"?
I could probably ramble on for a while, but I think instead, this is the place where I simply pray, "God, please soften my heart."
There is a second part to this story. As we wrapped up our conversation, I told you I would go grocery shopping and buy you some protein shakes, cereal, and milk. (to be honest, I also thanked God that you didn't ask to join me in this trip to the grocery store, because I would not have had the patience or humility to walk slowly with you through the long aisles). I confirmed which apartment building you were in, you told me your apartment number, and we agreed on a time when I'd drop the food off the next morning. And because you couldn't remember your own phone number, I gave you yet another of my business cards (you'd lost all the previous ones I've given you) and you said you'd call me so I would get your new number.
The next morning, after wrapping up coffee with a friend who himself is deeply involved in social justice for people experiencing unstable housing, I visited the grocer and picked up all the items on your list. When I got to your apartment building, I scrolled through the entryway's phone directory and didn't see you listed. Thinking maybe I had your last name wrong, I went back through the directory - since there were no first names, only first initials, I dialed up the only "G" name in the list... and reached a kind-but-definitely-not-Gary woman. I waited, hoping the door might see some traffic, and was rewarded 10 minutes later when a postal worker let me in.
You'd said you lived in apartment #46, and since all the numbers on main floor were in the 100s, I went down the elevator to level 0, where I found... cars. Lots of cars. And no apartments. Then I tried going up to 4th floor, thinking maybe I'd misunderstood and you had said "406". I knocked on 406's door and when a friendly young African American lady answered the door I exclaimed "you're not Gary!" She was very sweet, but she'd never heard of you.
Walking back to my car, I saw another apartment building across the street. The front door was locked, but the back door wasn't. ... In retrospect this all sounds incredibly creepy and stalkerish, but I swear all I wanted to do was deliver the two [heavy] bags of groceries I was lugging around! Anyway in apartment building #2 I looked at the directory and your name wasn't there. There was only one "G" name here as well, and I tried knocking on that door but no one answered.
Not willing to admit defeat I drove several times up and down the street where you panhandle, but you were not there. I checked inside the Arby's you like to eat at, and you were not there. I checked a third nearby apartment building and you weren't in the directory.
Then I gave up. I sulked back to the grocery store to return the food that I had bought for you. (they weren't able to take back the dairy, so I kept the half gallon of milk). If I see you again, maybe we can try this again, but until then I'm very miffed. By your irresponsibility in failing to call me so that I had any contact information for you, and by your irresponsibility of not even knowing your own phone number so I could have put it in my phone right away last night when I asked for it, you have reinforced negative stereotypes (that "homeless people are irresponsible", which I know is an unfair and unjustified stereotype) at a time when I was already struggling to fight against those in my head. And you've reinforced the notion for me that no good deed goes unpunished. It makes me sad and less inclined to do nice things for strangers. Is that fair? No, not at all, but it is reality. You wasted my time - two hours of my precious "me time", of which I get so little, now squandered, and that is not OK. My heart is growing hardened and jaded, and that makes me very, very sad.
One might reasonably ask why I even bothered at all? It's a valid question, especially when the previous paragraph sounds like I'm playing a victim card when I'm not the real victim. The answer boils down to a different question, and how I answer it: "Do the Weak have a moral claim on the Strong?" I don't think so. But the Strong do have a moral call to help the Weak. You (Gary) may not have a moral claim to demand my resources (time, money), but I do have the moral obligation to provide them. Or, put another way: the world is unfair, but those who are in a position to help make the world a little bit less unfair, also carry a moral obligation to try.