Pre-COVID when I was working in Washington, DC daily I was unable to get from my train stop downtown to my office building without tripping on members of the homeless population. Especially in the early morning, individuals were seen curled up, spread out, and clinging to their belongings if they had any. Most slept on collected cardboard boxes and some just on the pavement.
There were a lucky few who had obtained some form of a blanket to lay on or help shield them from the cold. I was always fascinated by the practice I noticed of pre-sleep shoe/boot removal. Men in particular, had a common bedtime ritual of removing their footwear and placing neatly right next to them, the way we would place them in our own closet.
Given my propensity to see myself in others, and them in me, this walk to my building was a constant reminder of possibilities, and not the warm and fuzzy kind. My brain is flooded with the idea that it could me laying there if the circumstances of my life had been different (See ‘Birth Lottery’ post.). I don’t take that for granted for one second. Instead of seeing the human suffering as sad or depressing, I tried to see it as an opportunity for me to practice generosity.
I began a daily practice of finding ways to be present to these strangers. I made an effort to look them in the eyes when I could and to say hello when appropriate. Sometimes I would think or softly whisper the words “God is there” to leave them with a loving prayer as we intersected for a few short seconds.
I also started keeping loose dollar bills in my coat pocket or sometimes in my gloves when it was freezing. I would take a certain amount of money (like $20 or $30 a month) and keep it ready at hand in one dollar bills, so if someone asked for money, I could easily give it and keep moving.
Instead of seeing my co-humans as a stress trigger (because as an empath I can’t “NOT” see them) I was able to recognize their presence as a chance to be kind. Instead of dodging certain streets or parks where there were large homeless populations, I began bringing Costco protein bars that I bought in bulk to place on the benches of those parks. I was always thrilled when there was already a case of granola or breakfast bars there, knowing another one of my co-humans had the same idea. I started truly looking forward to this part of my morning.
One year on my birthday, I took $100 in $5-10 dollar bills and put it in my pocket. Each time I saw a chance to give, I gave. I recall putting $20 dollars in the nearly frozen clenched fist of an elderly woman sleeping in a doorway to shield herself from the wind. My heart warmed when I thought about how she might feel when she woke up and found it.
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at begin to change.”
~ Wayne Dyer, PhD
Giving a dollar or two here and there does not make anyone rich and does not make me poor. But for a few moments on most weekday mornings, I enjoyed the practice of giving what I could and letting that be enough. I felt good, I hoped they felt good, and I know strangers simply observing these acts felt good, because I would often here someone behind me say “You are very kind” or “You are a good person.”
Over those years I was able to take a scenario that brought me stress (I saw a homeless person and felt empathy and helplessness) and turn it into a win-win (and sometimes a win-win-win!) situation by changing the way I looked at and subsequently, how I reacted to it.
Over time this has evolved into more of a generosity practice in the outskirts of DC where I live in Maryland. I keep small bills in my car console, and protein bars under the passenger seat. Instead of dodging humans at stoplights begging for help, I intentionally move toward them and give what I have in my stash and keep going. On a really generous day, I might even give cash AND protein bars!
We need to constantly challenge our view points and perceptions. Our brains are the most efficient and effective computers in the Universe. They are malleable and also faithful to what we ask of them. If we look for terror, our brain finds terror. If we look for miracles, our brain finds those too.
When I tell my brain seeing a homeless person is a reminder that I have so much and others have so little and I want to save everyone but I can’t, I experience the “homeless” situation as stressful. When I tell my brain seeing a homeless person is a chance for me to become more of myself, I feel gratitude and connection.
If you are so inspired, choose something on your “stressful” list and challenge it. See if you can look at it differently. Notice if when you change the way you look at things, they begin to look different. Try to identify alternative actions to switch things up. And let us all know how it goes!