February 11, 2019, by John
I am at the Manchester Piccadilly Station. I have just come out of the Oliver Bonas, irked by the outrageous price of £6 for a notebook. As I come out, I see an elderly man seated on a chair, with a rolled up mat underneath him. There is a cardboard underneath his feet as his feet barely touch the floor. He is wearing a hi-vis vest around the tattered coat he is wearing. In his hands are two copies of the Big Issue. He holds them limply. Whenever he senses someone walking past, he raises his hand, trying to attract their attention. His head is mostly bowed. He seems hopeful, but seemingly hopeless.
As I look around, I am struck by the deep disparity. As I came out of Oliver Bonas just now, I overheard people discussing whether to purchase a £100 bag. Around me, people are queuing for a Starbucks latte, paying £3 for each cup. People are walking out of Sainsbury’s with a £3 meal deal in hand. Yet despite this, no one seems willing to fork out £2.50 for his Big Issue.
I used to work at a hostel for the homeless as part of my social work placement. Despite my personal contact with the homeless, whenever I see someone begging on the streets of Nottingham, I quickly walk past.
As I look at this elderly man, I am struck by how heartless I have been as a person. Earlier that week, I had read Brené Brown’s Rising Strong.
“When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.”
That night, I walked up to him and bought a copy of the Big Issue. He quickly returned the change to me after I had handed him a fiver. Despite his suffering, he still maintained his dignity.
Perhaps this story speaks to you today. In reflection, I realised I looked away from the homeless because I was afraid of seeing my need in their eyes. My personal struggles of fitting in, having a sense of belonging, and finding love.
If you feel moved today, there are many things you can do to help. But the most important thing we can do is to start treating ‘them’ as people. In those 5 minutes I spent watching the elderly man, none of the crowd paid him any attention. As if he was just an anomaly, someone, something to be ignored.
Friends, today, if you see someone in need, ask them how they are. You might not be able to offer money, food, but you can offer your humanity. Offer your most precious gift of time. Speak to them, and acknowledge their humanity. As humans, we are hardwired for connection. A wise man once told me, ‘Today, we search for experience, but what we really need is relationship.’
If you are able, there are many projects around that can help. Souprunners is one of those run by our Students’ Union.
Today, you might not see the homeless, but there are still many people around us we take for granted. The cleaning assistants, the security guards, the gardeners. Would it hurt us to simply ask ‘How are you? How are you, really?’
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly, mildly.
George Saunders, at the 2013 Syracuse University Commencement
John writes regularly at www.gutenhag.com.