What made me cry this weekend

The Red Line train was crowded, last Friday morning. I had an hourlong ride to Pasadena and the seats were nearly all full. A garrulous Indian man balanced his bicycle against the center pole. My seatmate was a stocky Latino man with his iPod plugged into his ear.

I had my work with me. I tuned out the sounds and conversations around me so I could concentrate: my seatmate’s music, the Indian man’s chitchat, a crazy person’s shouting and cussing. I focused and wrote, refocused as I became distracted, consciously ignoring all sounds that were not the conductor’s announcements. But one of the sounds kept pulling at me over and over again. Something wasn’t right. Gradually I noticed that the shouts coming from the front of the car were not the usual crazy-dude swear words. I caught some words: “poverty,” “substance abuse,” “medication,” “psychosis.” I put down my pen and listened harder. Those around me turned their heads too.

The shouter was a middle-aged black man, shabbily dressed in a grey and blue sweatshirt. He stood, hunched over, in the aisle up toward the front of the car, grasping the center pole with one hand. He cried out to us:

“Please,” he pleaded, “I just need my medication. It’s a real drug. Its name is…” The noise of the car cut off bits and pieces of his words. “… need this medication. Won’t somebody help me?”

I picked up my pen again and began to write down his words. For many stops, for many minutes, his voice rose and fell in the ambient sounds, but without ceasing. Sleeping passengers opened their eyes. Many heads turned toward him, but no one made a move. Those around me looked as tense as I felt, and I knew that they too recognized that these were not the usual obscene rantings of public-transit crazies. This man sounded sane, and he sounded genuine.

As the train rolled on, and as increasing numbers of people began to listen but still offered nothing, the man’s voice became more anguished. His shouts turned sorrowful.

“There’s—nothing—WRONG!” he sobbed fiercely. “With—ASKING—for—HELP!” He looked around at everyone. “Looks can be deceiving,” he cried. “Goodness comes in all colors.”

Like everyone else, I remained fixed in my seat. I thought over and over again, “If he comes over here, I’ll talk to him. I’ll ask him questions. I’ll give him money.” Each new pronouncement, each new heart-rending plea, made me more determined to act, but I was afraid. I couldn’t decide what to do, and so I did nothing.

The man continued calling out. “Every day I am out on the streets drinking the dirty water that gives me DYSENTERY! My POVERTY – the clothes I wear – tell you nothing about my honesty! The color of my skin tells you—NOTHING!—about my integrity. I never hurt nobody. I never steal from nobody!”

Still no one moved.

He repeated, brokenly, “There is no SHAME– in asking– for HELP!”

The conductor’s voice came over the speakers, “Pershing Square, we are approaching Pershing Square Station.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. Each new thing the man said shut down another one of my mental protestations over personal safety, leaving the help to professionals, and not giving to people who might spend it on booze. I reached into my wallet to pull out a $5, then after an instant’s hesitation brought out a $20 instead. At that moment the train doors opened and the man moved out into the station. I almost got up and ran after him, but couldn’t bring myself to do so. When the doors closed and the train started up again, I knew the moment for choosing sympathy instead of complacency had ended. I thought of the man’s anguished pleadings, and now, knowing my chance to help or reach out was gone, tears rose to my eyes.

I felt so wrong for not doing anything. So wrong I felt, and so ashamed. I did nothing because I kept trying to rationalize my fear of action away: “He’s probably just crazy.” “He’ll probably spend the money on drugs or alcohol.” “He’s faking it.” “If I had training in psychiatry or mental health, then it would make more sense for me to talk to him.” But in my truest and most honest of hearts I knew none of these justifications were true, or if they were, that didn’t matter. I’m a spendthrift myself – who’s to say he would have spent the $20 any less wisely than I? He’s surely more deserving. And if he were crazy, would that mean he doesn’t merit our help and sympathy? At the very least, there would have been no harm in talking to him. The train was crowded and everyone was looking. I could have spoken to him without risking anything more than my sense of complacency, but I did not.

What purpose does it serve to be so cynical that we cannot acknowledge suffering when it is right in front of our faces? What are we, if not human? What do we have, if not our empathy? We don’t need specialized training to talk to someone, to listen, to offer comfort or sympathy. We don’t need a lot of money to be able to ease the pain of others. I should have gone to him instead of hoping he would come to me. I should have sat down by him and asked him about his life. Though all I had to offer was my experience as a human being, that could have been enough. By not even acknowledging our shared humanity enough to lend this man an ear, I denied him the treatment I would have given any other individual – at least, as I now recognize, in theory… since when actually faced with a fellow human being who was suffering, I turned a blind eye.

I cried after the man got off the train, realizing the full weight of what I’d done by ignoring him. I thought of all the things I should have said:

What is your name?
Where do you come from?
What is the name of the medication you need? How much does it cost? Who told you/how do
you know that you need it? Have you taken it before? How did it help you? What will you do
when it runs out again?
Where do you sleep?
What do you eat? Do you eat?
Is anyone helping you?

All these things I could have asked, and it would have been a good thing for all of us. I wasn’t the only person on the train who had sympathy for the man; I could see that. I should have asked him all these things, and everyone would have listened to the answers. We could all have learned something.

The thing that makes me most ashamed and most grieved, when I think on this, is how very deeply trained we are to ignore our common humanity. Everyone asks for help, everyone needs something. Many are liars or opportunists, true, but so many others are not. We’ve taught ourselves to turn away. We’ve invented these justifications for ignoring others’ suffering — which I used on myself, effectively, when the instinctive kindness of my heart told me to reach out to this man. And this man – and it is this that most shames me — knew this, and he tried to break through these mental walls with what he told us, but we refused to listen. He told us that he was honest and that he just needed medication. I imagine that what he said, when I couldn’t hear, was that he was not a substance abuser and he just needed this drug to stave off psychosis. He was articulate, he was nonviolent, and he was humble. Everything we expect a poor person to be, if he is “deserving,” this man was or claimed to be, and still no one helped.

It drives me crazy that I only fully realized our common humanity after the man left — who among us, if not suddenly left to homelessness, would NOT be crying for help and pleading with strangers to see our suffering? We all think that if things are really bad, if our pain becomes truly great, that people will see and recognize and help. But if we are really brutally honest with ourselves we know that is not true. There are countless people suffering all over the world, but do we lift a finger? It’s like Joaquin Phoenix’s character says in Hotel Rwanda: “They’ll see the evening news and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ Then they’ll go right on eating their dinners.” It’s true. That’s what people do – only most of us are lucky enough to never have the opportunity to find this out for ourselves. Let’s face it: when you are well-off and well-connected, healthy and apparently mentally stable, when you suffer, people do help… or at least they do if you pay them to. If you are poor and black and a nobody, there’s no one to reach out their hand.

The man on the train was trying with all his heart to make us see that, but no one did. Even though I did see it, eventually, I still could not shake my habit of inaction, and now I am ashamed and sad. I had an opportunity to be the good person I always claim I am, and I let it slip away.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]