Today in Hamburg, while riding the U-bahn back to Superbude in Schanzenviertel, there was a man on the train asking for money. Now unless you have been living under a rock for the entirety of your life, or are so sheltered/(un/)fortunate/privilidged as to live in a world in which you have never experienced poverty second hand, this is not a unique image by any stretch of the imagination – especially if you live in a big city like New York, London, or Berlin.
You also know as well as I that the world is not a fair place. Although hardships come in all different shapes, sizes, orientations, colors, ethnicities, religions, etc., despite all of these other factors, some of us are born into into a life of comfortable “middle-classness” (although as the divide between rich and poor continues to increase, those of us who find ourselves here are become few and far between), others into a cushy upper-middlclass life, a very select view (I would even go as far as to say 1% – har har) into pure luxury, the majority into a life of “managable” poverty, and countless others into abject poverty.
For those of us who have grown up in developed societies, for the most part, we are only confronted with this lowest level of the income bracket when we encounter homeless individuals either via volunteer work or begging for money from the larger society. I myself have made no attempt to hide the fact that although I myself was born with nothing – not even a bloodline or a name – things changed rapidly over the next 4 months of my infant life when I was adopted by a family in America. I have had the fortune of not being born “well-off,” but adopted into it. Knowing that my life could have turned out very differently is something I always try to bare in mind.
And so my personal encounters with those that are in the grips of extreme poverty have only been during volunteer work (which has unfortunately not happened nearly enough as it should) or during my daily commute around the city. But each and everytime I encounter someone begging for money on the train, on the streets, or just simply pass by another living and breathing soul on the streets, my heart legitimately hurts. And yet, I still am not quite sure what the best course of action truly would be.
It’s hard when you live in a city, becuase although I often do try to give money when I can, it would be damned near impossible to give a Euro or two to everyone who directly asked for it, or passively sought it. In a city like Berlin, I would be donating 5-10€ a day on average. And although I am lucky to come from a family who has always looked after me, my family being financially stable is very different than me being financially stable on my own. This is an independence I am working towards, and technically means I don’t have the means to donate at will randomly.
Then there is the question of where that money will go – to a meal, or a habit? To a woman with a child, or a mafia boss? Now I am much less inclined to judge someone with a habit, as I make it a point to not pass judgement on other people, and if the sad reality is that this individual doesn’t have a hopeful future, who am I to tell him or her how to spend the money they have been given? (Now I will judge the mafia bosses who force women into slavery because my judging begins where another person’s adherence to human rights ends.)
And then there is the big question of guilt and selflessness v. selflessness. Can one truly donate money as a selfless act? Because inherently if I give money to someone because it physically and emotionally hurts me to see their current state, doing so is still in some measure being done to assuage my own guilt and satisfy my own pain. After all, they do say that no act can truly be selfless. (And now I feel like it is a perfect moment to refer to Joey and Phoebe’s discussion about selfless good deeds…) But still, that pain comes from empathy and regardless of the motivation, when a good deed is done this is an overwhelmingly good thing no matter how selfish.
But I’m getting off on a huge tangent here. In fact, at this point I am not even sure what kind of point I am trying to make other than the fact that being human is about wrestling with pain and confusion – that we bring unto ourselves, that others put on us or that we take from other people and put on ourselves. And what I do know is this: every single one of us are born into the world as innocent human beings without a stain, without a tarnish (unless you believe in original sin). It is this thought that I have whenever I see a homeless person whose life seems full of pain. We are all born with the world in front of us. Yes, there is inequality, yes, some of us are simply born into situations that are easier than others. But essentially we are all innocent creatures when we take our first breath in the world. At that moment we are able to do anything we set our mind to – some of us will simply have an easier road to get there than others . And the fact that this can change so rapidly for some of us – whether by our own hand, bad luck, or whatever – is a concept I accept as reality but find extremely hard to live with.
This post has no happy ending, witty last sentence, or motivational catch phrase. Because life isn’t always tied up in a big-ass bow. Life is hard and life hurts and life is not fair. I’m just trying to wrap my head around what can actually be done to make the little time we have on this earth a bit better for all of us.
Photography: Thommy White
Thank you to my September sponsor, Sophie!