Josh and I went out to a bar last night, played some darts with the locals, and then (as is our yearly tradition) went for a late night snack at the local White Castle. We were in the downtown area late at night, and by Indianapolis standards this is somewhat dodgy. There were about three homeless (and inebriated, one quite severely) people inside the establishment. A couple of them were sleeping, but one of them was wandering around in a stupor. At one point he came over to our table and lingered, spouting a lot of mumbled, incomprehensible things. I finally gave him one of our sandwiches and he stumbled away, over to the counter where he tried to tell them he had ordered something and they gave him a drink. The people working at the White Castle were actually pretty nice about the homeless hanging around, and it was below freezing outside, so where should they go? The guy got his cup and wandered over to the soda dispenser where he unsuccessfully pawed at it and leaned into it for several minutes mumbling loudly, at which point Josh went over to push the soda button for him. This must have inspired him, because he came back to our table standing over us and mumbling some more, and we finally shooed him away long enough to eat in peace. Or so we thought. About 2 minutes later, a guy came in off the street and made a bee line for our table. He had the shakes and was asking us something that I couldn’t quite make out when Josh let out a loud-ish firm “No.” and the guy wandered off. I realized at that point he was offering us four dollars for a ride uptown. We finished our meal quickly and left after that. I thought for a bit on our discomfort when dealing with these men. And I realized that other than offering them a little food and drink, there was no (long term) fix for their suffering that was within our power right there and then to make happen.
Talk about things to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. And it really makes you wonder about why our society and its safety net has such big holes in it that allow people to fall so very far through them. In my own family, my older brother, who is on permanent disability due to a number of psychiatric problems, would probably be out on the street were it not for the actions of my family. They have given him a place to live and supplemental income and protected him from the worst. It has put an emotional and financial strain on the family to be sure. But what do people do who aren’t lucky enough to have a family like ours? The social and governmental safety nets we have around us are highly variable and dependent on so many factors, among them wealth, family, geography, culture, ethnicity/race, and luck. And it is so easy for us to look the other way. Our (calvinist/protestant) society seems to have an emotional need to believe that God rewards good people with wealth and health and punishes others with poverty and sickness. This is not terribly different than what many in India and other eastern societies believe about karma and our given place in the world. And even if we do believe that some people are more or less deserving than others, we should wish suffering on no one, and do what we can as a society to alleviate it. The greater the peace and health and happiness of the most vulnerable in our society, the greater our own peace and happiness will be.