Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Regret

I mentioned yesterday how cold it has been this past month and whenever we get into a severe cold snap like this I get nervous. What if the electricity goes off? What if the car breaks down? Normal scenarios can get dangerous when you're dealing with temperatures that can kill and my mother instinct kicks into overdrive and I tend to worry.

I worry if the kids are warm enough at school, I worry that Grace is being a teenager and not wearing her hat and mittens and I worry about the people who aren't fortunate enough to have a home.

Anchorage has it's share of homelessness--I wrote about it last year when an acquaintance of ours had a deliriously drunk homeless woman wander into their home at night--and whenever we have weather like this I can't help but think about the people out suffering the most. Actually I try not to think about it much because the thought of any human trying to survive in this weather is too horrible to contemplate, all that mother-worry overwhelms me.

Last week I needed to do some grocery shopping. I'd put it off for days to avoid going out but I finally grabbed an hour on Thursday to run and get what we needed. By the time I got to the store it was getting crowded with afternoon shoppers and as I zoomed through the aisles to beat the rush I turned a corner and saw a man fingering a can of baked beans on the shelf. He was scraggly and rough and if he hadn't had a cart with him I would have sworn he was homeless (this is Alaska after all and scraggly beards and torn jeans are a dime a dozen).

As I saw him standing there the thought brushed through that I wondered if he needed any help.

But then just as quickly came the thought "What business is it of yours? Just because the man looks a little shabby doesn't mean he's homeless, why would he be so far south from the shelters and why would he have a cart if he were just hiding out from the cold?"

So I kept going, not wanting to offend him by assuming he could use some cash. Obviously things were fine if he was buying groceries, right?

I whipped through the rest of my shopping and checked out then as I was pushing my cart back to the entrance and out to the car I saw the man again. He didn't have any cart, hadn't bought anything, and he was just wandering around looking at things so I couldn't help but admit that he really must be homeless. The thought again can to me to wonder if he needed any help.

But I was in a hurry to get home to my warm house and I was embarrassed to confront him. I didn't know exactly what to say and didn't know how he'd respond. It's all very stupid, I have been in those situations before and somehow managed to say the right thing but this time I pushed on by and said nothing.

I loaded up the groceries and headed home before feeling that horrible, sinking feeling of guilt that I'd missed my chance. All the things that I could have done--taken him to the deli counter, given him some of my food, offered him a kind word--came into my head as I realized that I'd messed up. It's not as if I could have wiped out homelessness in Anchorage or even changed this man's life but it didn't matter. That one person needed help and I'd been too busy.

Going about the rest of my evening chores and getting ready for bed I tried not to think about it but that night, as is commonly the case, I began to wind down and review my day before going to sleep and I couldn't help but see the man's face and know that while I certainly couldn't have solved all his problems the least I could have done was to offer him a bit of kindness and humanity.

It made it hard to sleep and I still feel embarrassed at my behavior but it made me think that I'm sure it won't be the last time I see someone who could use some help and even though I didn't make the best choice next time I plan to be a little braver and kinder and not so rushed.

I don't want to live a life filled with regrets for what I could have done, even with very small acts.

***

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Technorati tags: Alaska, winter, homelessness

62 comments:

The Quiet One said...

Thanks for sharing that. You're not alone - I've done that several times myself unfortunately. I'm sure next time will be different and you must blog about that too! Have a great day.

Flea said...

That was a tough call, with him having a cart the first time. Hopefully someone else saw him and did him a kindness. I understand your reticence. Next time. There's always a next time.

patty w said...

That's a very tough situation. You just never know and you don't want to embarrass the person. Been there, done that, it happens.

You could always donate food/cash to an organization to ease your mind . But I know, it's that thought if the fellow was hungry and needed a meal right then.

Jennifer said...

You are not alone in that regret at all. I have been in a similar situation (minus the freezing cold temperatures) and responded the same way. The regret was so hard I made sure I did something different the next time. Just like I am sure you will do.

Lis Garrett said...

I think we have all been in those same situations of being able to help and either being too embarrassed or rushed to do so.

I remember snapping at a cashier who, when I placed my milk, eggs and bread on the belt, asked if I was using WIC. I remember feeling angry and mortified that someone would assume I (thought rather haughtily), the wife of a husband who works for an Ivy League university, would be on WIC. My husband every-so-gently reminded me that in this rural area, a lot of mothers are on WIC and it might be a common practice to simply ask at the beginning of every transaction.

So you never know how people are going to react. They might be offended, as was I, or they might feel overwhelmed with gratitude. At the very least, you know what you'll do next time . . .

(we all know you have a VERY kind heart)

Heather of the EO said...

I feel these nudges sometimes too and totally ignore them and make excuses. You're right, I don't want those regrets either. Thank you for your honesty here.

I've also lived the moments where I've done what my heart is telling me to do and it's always a blessing to me and the other person. I wish it were easier somehow. You'd think it would be.

P.S. We're freezing our butts off here too--YIKES.

Barb said...

Me too, way too many times. I'll never forget, though, one time that I made it right. My huge family was having an impromtu reunion at a local park. We had so much food it was amazing. A homeless man walked into our picnic area and asked if we had any to spare, and my sister and I were both so surprised, our immediate response was, "No."

The park was full of homeless people that day and I think we envisioned a huge line forming.

I think she and I both realized what we'd done at the same moment. Without a word, we loaded up a couple of plates with fried chicken and all the sides, including birthday cake, and we walked around until we found him. He didn't even say thank you, he was so stunned that we brought him what was probably the best meal he'd had in ages. But the look in his eyes was more thanks than we could have ever asked for.

To this day, I can't eat fried chicken without thinking of that young man. Sometimes you get the opportunity to repair a mistake. It felt very good.

Mimi said...

I lived in Boston for 5 years. It gets pretty darn cold there in the winter. I used to walk by these 2 homeless people every day who huddled in a doorway outside of my office. They were usually sleeping at that time in the morning.

On one particular cold and blustery day they were stirring. I went up to my warm, comfortable office as usual and thought about them downstairs. I filled two cups with tea from our office and brought them down to them. They were most grateful and it made me feel guilty that I hadn't done more before.

You hear the stereotype all the time about homeless people who take the money they panhandle and use it for drugs or alcohol -- so double guessing on your part is natural. There are places where these people can get shelter and help.

A good book to read is one by Maine Green party activist, Pat LaMarche. It's called "Left out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States." She spends a night in a bunch of different homeless shelters across the country. Very interesting stuff!

Rev. Sonja said...

I'm sorry that you are feeling the pain of regret right now, but as in everything, these things can lead to learning and growth. I am sure this will be a learning experience for you to listen to that still small voice inside you. I believe that we let our hearts talk to us too infrequently, that first thought, that initial gut instinct was right. But we have spent our entire lives telling our hearts they aren't as smart as our brains, and to be quiet.

Our brains don't think in terms of compassion and kindness. Really if you think about how you are with your children, your brain (your knowledge) backs up your heart (your love and motherly instinct.)

Grace abounds not only for you, but for him. I pray that he did find something that helped him that day, and the next. And I pray that you will not carry the pain of regret with you, because that can be as destructive at times as not feeling anything.

Stephanie and Co. said...

Regret can be a gift that helps us to do better next time.
I too have felt the urge to help someone, and then pushed it aside at the thought of saying the wrong thing, or because I am busy.
I think of all the times that a stranger has helped me and try to do better.

Crazy Daisy said...

Thank you for sharing. I have been in similar situations and can empathize on how hard it is to decide to take the chance. We never want to offend someone, however it is often the chances we take that are the beginning of something wonderful!

Melissa G. said...

We have a fairly substancial homeless population here in Minneapolis and like Alaska, it gets cold here. It was -36 at the bus stop this morning. So I understand what you are talking about with the cold.

Our mayor and other city leaders have encouraged us not to give to "panhandlers" because they really want people coming to the shelters, food networks, etc. to get help. They want to do more than provide a meal, they want to work on getting people off the street and become productive citizens.

It's a great goal and I admire what they are doing. However, when I am nice and warm in my car and pulled up to an interesection and someone is standing on the side asking for money. I give all that I can. To be honest, I don't care how they use it, I just hope they will do something to keep them safe. I've given my bus cards to people so they could sit on a city bus all day and keep warm without the threat of being kicked off for not having money.

Whenever I go to the grocery store I always buy a few dollars worth of food extra to put in the food bin. I am not wealthy by any means but know that I am better off than a lot of people, especially now.

It's the little things that matter. And like you, I know that I am not changing their world or circumstances but I am recognizing them as a human being which is something that gets lost. Thank you for the reminder and I know that the next time something similar happens you won't have that doubt and will have the courage to help.

Great post.

Mercy's Maid said...

We all have those "I really blew it" moments. *sigh*

Are there some charitable organizations that we could donate a few bucks to that would help the homeless in Alaska? Just the thought of the bitter cold up there makes me want to help someone who doesn't have a warm place to go.

Melissa said...

I have been there myself. Thanks for sharing and reminding me to look for opportunities to do good.

Mom24 said...

I have so been there. Sorry. It is painful and tough. It's easy to second guess. I never know how to help--what the right thing to do is. I hate when I pass the people on the freeway exit ramps holding the signs and you don't know if they're scamming, if they really need help, what would truly be helpful to them. It is hard. No words of wisdom, just empathy.

thordora said...

I had the same experience yesterday-two young men entered the resturant I was in, and asked to just sit awhile and warm up.

They looked just like cold teenagers, and I didn't want to embarress them...but I wanted to at least leave them coffee money..in the end I didn't, and usually I will, but I still hate that helpless wondering...

Sara said...

We've all been in this situation many times. Please, give me some ideas or advice about what you would actually say and how you would approach it. I'd like to be able to help out sometimes when I see people like this, but I don't really know how to go about it without embarassing or insulting the person.

calicobebop said...

I understand that feeling. I think that your resolve to do better next time is the only cure. Sometimes those regrets can be helpful, even if they are painful at the time. At least, that's what I've learned...

M said...

You have a lot of advice here so I'll keep it short...The fact that you're even still thinking/posting about it says wonders about your presence of mind for next time.

Chilihead said...

Michelle, I've had the same experience. And you're right: The next time I made a different decision. It's always hard to know whether to intrude and offer help or not.

chelle said...

I am so shy and not able to approach people. I wish I could. Instead I give food to our food bank and donate our old things to charity. Not much but a little bit.

mamadaisy said...

oh, i've had that guilt, too. i guess we all have. it just means you have a good heart.

when i was little, my father (long since dead) would play It's a Small World on his accordian. by the time we were 10 or 12 we would moan and cry, oh dad, what are you doing. super dorkitude. but then after he died, well, we missed it a bit.

there is a homeless man who plays accordian in front of our grocery store around christmas time. he is not just blind, but has actually lost his eyes. i saw him one year, and i wanted to ask him to play that song for me. i never did. i regretted it all year long. the next year i was so relieved to see him again. i had another chance! i still was too shy to ask for the song, but i put a $20 bill in his cup. it doesn't fix everything, but maybe he got a few good meals out of it.

i sure felt better. :-)

Chris said...

You can see that by sharing that story, you have started a chain reaction! We're all thinking about what we're going to do the next time we're confronted with this issue...everything happens for a reason!! Don't beat yourself up over it, no regrets allowed!

Lara said...

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately...to listen to the promptings I get almost daily, and to act on them. I was having a very similar regret the other day, and realized I missed a big chance to help someone. It is just really hard not to think of all the reasons why I shouldn't do something instead of just focusing on one reason why I should.

Trixie said...

Oh, Michelle!

Thank you for sharing this. I have done the same thing myself out of the fear of embarassing myself or the potential recipient.

Trixie

Maddy said...

I know all about those missed opportunities and the sleepless nights that come with them.

Fortunately there is always another day and another chance tomorrow.
Best wishes

NGS said...

This certainly touched me. I've been there before - I should have done something, said something, given something. It has led to some awful late nights for me, too. Yesterday I came home from the grocery store (it's pretty darn cold here in Minneapolis, too!) cried because I wasn't able to give the homeless guy in the store parking lot more than the $5 in cash I had on me. I didn't/don't know what to do and I was so embarrassed I was crying, I told my husband nothing was wrong. Because there's nothing I can do. :(

Abby said...

I have been there before as well. When we lived in Anchorage my son said I bet the homeless people banana lady b/c I was always handing them a banana from my groceries as we were leaving ;). Oh well I have been called worse things!

Teaching Kids Yoga said...

Your story is so powerful because I can relate to it.

We can give in so many ways. We can give money or food, but also loving thoughts. We can give respect and not pity. We can give a prayer or a blessing.

I learned this from a meditation. We constantly contribute to the world with our attitude and thoughts. It helps me to not feel sorry for others, which I don't think they want, and also let go and trust in a bigger Giver then myself.

Tiaras and Tantrums said...

Oh, I think in our lifetimes, we have this feeling that won't go away on our decisions, more than once? I have anyway!

Beth (A Mom's Life) said...

This too has happened to me. I never know what to say or how to say it.

Because what if it really was just someone killing time? But then agian,what if it was Jesus?

Next time I see someone that looks like they need some help, I am going to try to look past my fears, pray for the right words and say something.

Thanks for a great post!

Gray Matters said...

That's always a tough situation and I often wonder how to handle such things.

I usually always give my change when asked at red lights. One particular day I was nine months pregnant and my fingers were very swollen. I had taken my wedding band off due to swelling and placed it with all my change in the car. You can probably see where this is going. The next time I gave my change away I also gave away my wedding band - oh how I hope the gentlemen knew he had a platinum band on his hands.

That hasn't stopped me from giving my change, but I'm sure there is more I can do.

Mrs. Organic said...

I appreciate you sharing this, it reminds me of the time an elderly man and his wife asked me to help them pay for her heart medication - I readily agreed to go in and pay for it for them, but they wanted cash, I just didn't have it.

Maybe they had other plans for that money, but I still wish I would've been able to give it to them.

Chrissy Johnson said...

I have been having the same exact thoughts these past few weeks. Getting fed up that our TN home hasn't sold and that we're still living in a friend's house up here, angry about the hour & a half commute and the gas money it costs, and then I see someone who is REALLY and TRULY down and out and I feel all ashamed and sorrowful...and full of sympathy pains. I usually pray for the individual, for myself to be more giving and loving, and try to make a direct donation (however small) to a local charity for the homeless. I haven't done the last bit up here, yet. Your entry has 'nudged' me to do so.
In Knoxville, in the library, we had a large number of homeless patrons. Knoxville is known as a town that's kind to the homeless, with it's nice shelters and mild climate...so we had our share of them. I was rarely asked for money, though...but I always tried to treat each patron equally, whether they 'appeared' homeless or not. (TN is like Alaska, you can't tell by looking at a person!)...So anyway, I'll reiterate what every one has stated, you're not alone, and also the fact that you CARE says a lot, let that calm you a bit. Some (a lot?) of people wouldn't have given him a second glance. That means something in the cosmic scheme of things!

Kathryn said...

It's a tough call to make. Although you probably feel really bad about it, it's good if you can learn from the experience. Next time you will be that much more likely to confront your fears. Like everyone else, I have been there too and what else do we have these experiences for if not to learn from them. Thank you for sharing your regrets!

Patois said...

The next time, you will do something different. As you can tell, we've all been there. It's good of you to share it with us.

cndymkr / jean said...

Ack. I know exactly what you mean. I never know when it's ok to offer assistance or if the offer would be considered nosy. I've decided to just follow my gut instincts and offer "help" only if my gut tells me I should. I'd rather have the offer refused then spend time wondering if I had done the right thing.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

It's hard to approach a perfect stranger and ask if he needs help. I don't blame you for hesitating. It's frustrating, though; I know. It's hard to think of anyone going cold or hungry right now. And so many people refuse to go to shelters - they claim they've been robbed there, or worse.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Living in an area rife with homeless I have had too many regettable moments lost because I doubted myself. Thanks for sharing this to remind me to forget myself and just reach out.

Heather said...

I too get paralyzed by the worry of offending someone.

all over the map said...

I truly believe that God knocks on our hearts. It's His way of giving that gentle nudge when we need it.
It is difficult to navigate your way around all the what-ifs of the situation but one thing for sure you will remember and there won't be a next time. That's the beauty in it.
I would have felt the same, and have, all day. I, too, have let situations of help pass by because of awkwardness or uncertainty but in my heart of hearts I knew I should have taken the chance, even if it was uncomfortable.
God's grace will always carry us through even if we completely blunder things up. He knows our heart. We need to remember this & it's never to late to quickly ask Him right at that moment to give us the words or wisdom we need in the moment.
It makes me think just how fortunate we are to be able to drive to the store, buy food and know that we have a warm, comfortable, safe place to sleep at night.

Laurie said...

I agree with many comments that said we all have those nudges and doubts.I am from the New Orleans area which has a large homeless population, especially during the winter. This week the temps will be below freezing in the city, and yes, there will be people who will die. They think the weather in New Orleans is always safe to be without shelter or heat. Now I live in Honduras. I gave a banana and orange one day to a homeless girl. She cried as she ate the fruit rapidly. I will never forget her.

3 Bay B Chicks said...

It is interesting to read your perspective on homelessness, given your very unique geographic location. I don't stop to think about problems like these outside of my own backyard.

Reading this post felt like an opportunity to get to know you a bit better and to appreciate the occasional regrets that we all have in common. Thank you.

-Francesca

AlaneM said...

I think we've all let moments of opportunity slip by us. I'm glad you chose to write about it & remind us all that we need to stop thinking about ourselves first & offer help when we can.

miriama said...

I know where you are coming from. I am fine handing a dollar to someone who comes up to me in Seattle and asks for money (even thought my husband says I am asking for trouble) but the rest of the time? Embarrassment overcomes me. I am stopped wondering if I will be doing the wrong thing and then I think about it over time and wonder what was the worst that could have happened?

We give a lot to others but I still think we could do more. I will have to think about what you wrote and maybe look around a bit more......

Nell @ Casual Friday Everyday said...

I would have felt the same way. It has to be tough when you just aren't sure. It's pretty obvious around here when there's someone who is homeless but what if it weren't easy for me to know? What would I have done? I'm not sure I would have done much differently than you before reading this post.

Nell

Nicole said...

I think we have all been there at one time or another. I guess we're afraid of offending/being rejected for approaching someone. But its good to take a the risk sometimes. Good reminder...

Melissa-Mc said...

It's always hard to know how much to help someone. I always struggle when I see someone who is handicapped. Having a mom with MS who doesn't want to be helped AT ALL and gets offended by offers has made me cautious in approaching others. I guess its better to err on the side of kindness, though. No worries. I am sure you will have many opportunities in the future.

boysmum2 said...

That is the truest thing I have read for a while. It was lovely. You said exactly what is probably going through most people's head. Sadly we can't save everyone, we can think about them and sometimes we are brave enough to try to do something hoping it won't offend them. It is a hard call to make and I am proud of you for even thinking about it in a nice way rather than complaining about them.

Maryann said...

I'm glad you wrote this post. xox

ArtisticInkspirations said...

Have also seen lots of homeless.Here in the SW where the weather is milder we have a large population of homeless..living everywhere and many times coming up to the cars at Drugstores, gas staions.. etc. But one day while at Church's chicken. I saw an old man (homeless obviously by his appearance) just sitting on the curb by the drive through in the shadows.. so I went through and got an extra meal and drink and motioned him over to give it to him when I came back around. He looked like he'd been beaten a few times.. physically. Maybe that will give him one hot meal. Unfortunately, many can't even get downtown to the soup centers and there aren't enough places to give them a place to sleep when the weather is bad. But maybe for one day.. one had a warm meal and food in his belly.

WhiteStone said...

Oh, I've been there before! It's painful to look back and wish you had done SOMEthing. Anything. I don't always think quick on my feet so a painful nudge is helpful in being prepared the next time you encounter need.

Anonymous said...

Awareness is a first step in learning to listen to our internal voice that tells us, "Here's an opportunity to help". You've heard it speaking to you, so now you'll recognize it and act on it. Thanks for sharing. Lynn

Alice Wills Gold said...

We have a lot of homeless people also.

But, seriously, I think the best thing that you can do for the homeless in Alaska is to tell them to start hiking....SOUTH!

If I were homeless, I would live in San Diego FOR SURE!

Summer said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I've had many regrets in life because I was too afraid I might offend someone I believed was in need.

Juicer Girl said...

Thanks for sharing. I always feel embarrassed too. Sometimes I offer help and others I don't. I wish I was braver too.

Dree

Damselfly said...

Sometimes it's really hard to know what to do. Maybe you will see him again....

Stephanie said...

I have had many moments like that in my life. It's so easy to get caught up in your own life and your own schedule...and to forget that people are needy and lonely and hungry.

Thanks for the reminder to watch for opportunities to help others...and then to take them.

luckyzmom said...

Thanks for for your honesty. It brought many pictures of regret to my mind. Perhaps many of us will be more alert to opportunities like this in the future. And that is a good thing.

BlapherMJ said...

I've been in that situation on many occasions and it is difficult to know what to do or how to handle it... Next time you'll know. :-)

Kelly @ Love Well said...

I wasn't able to comment on this when I read it, but it's stayed with me all week, Michelle. Missing an opportunity like that is a sickening feeling. I'm so thankful God's mercies are new every morning.

Neas Nuttiness said...

I'm one of your "lurkers" but I had to comment on this post. I am sure that most of us have had the same feelings at one time or another. If we spent all our time and energy on helping others, we would become "needy" ourselves. BUT - there is nothing at all wrong with helping when the spirit moves us. Don't beat yourself up with guilt...next time when you get the "tug" just follow through. It's kind of like the old story about the man who stood on the beach throwing the starfish back into the ocean...when asked why he did it, as he couldn't possibly make a difference, (because there were thousands and thousands of starfish, and obviously he couldn't help every one of them) he replied "it made a difference to that one"!