I believe in free will and man’s capacity to rise above adversity. I believe in accountability. I believe in the basic virtues upon which Western civilization has been built.
But I also believe that people sometimes take a wrong turn in the road — perhaps inadvertently or maybe as a result of an ill-advised, impulsive action — then discover that they can’t find their way back. There can be many causes for making that wrong turn — teenage pregnancy, the loss of a loved one, disappointment over not landing an anticipated promotion, lack of social acceptance, or failure in an area such as sports, academics, or spirituality.
Whatever the cause may be, we know that some people give up on life and turn to alcohol and drugs, become bitter recluses, or even resort to suicide. Then there are others who, after experiencing everything from a poverty-stricken background to racism … to the loss of an entire family … to financial catastrophe, fight back and succeed against all odds.
What we don’t know is why one person is motivated to take the turn in the road that leads to a happy, fulfilling life, while another chooses a turn that leads to self-destruction and misery. Is it genetics over which we have no control? Is it inevitability dictated by a Conscious Universal Power Source or a random universe?
The truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know. Years ago, at a seminar in Sydney, Australia, the late Jim Rohn, in talking about how easy it is to become irritated by individuals who are nasty to you, suggested that you have to learn to “meet people in the hurt.“ Everyone who has children can relate to this, because kids experience so much pain growing up. What they have to go through as adolescents and teenagers borders on cruel and unusual punishment.
The good news is that most of them survive and go on to lead normal, healthy lives. The bad news is that millions of them never find their way back to the main road and end up on drugs, alcohol, or both. They end up in abusive marriages. They end up homeless. And, yes, many end up dead at an early age.
Whenever I cross paths with a street beggar, I find myself wondering what happened in this person’s life that brought him to such a wretched state. What was the wrong turn he took, why did he take it, and when?
I began giving money to street beggars at a relatively young age. I especially made it a point to give to them when I was struggling in my own life, because I would think to myself (and still do), “There but for the grace of God go I.“
People have often chastised me for giving money to “human blight“ who appear unwilling to help themselves. What motivates me to do it is the lingering question: What is it that happened in this person’s life that brought him to the point where he’s lost the sinew to fight for his existence?
It’s easy to say that a person should stand up and do whatever it takes to overcome his dreadful circumstances, but that begs the question, “Why?” Why doesn’t he do it? Is it a genetic problem? Is it willed by a Higher Being for reasons we do not understand? If he’s “lazy,“ why is he lazy?
Is there not something mentally wrong (by “normal“ standards) with both a schizophrenic and a person who cannot muster the energy to fight for his life? If a person’s brain does not work in such a way that he is determined to rise above his dismal circumstances, is he not just as “crazy“ as a schizophrenic?
Let me make it clear that I’m not on a crusade to help the poor. On the contrary, I am a staunch believer that people who rail on endlessly about the injustice of the growing gap between the rich and poor almost always do more harm than good. As Nobel Prize novelist and poet Anatole France so rightly pointed out, “Those who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness of peoples have made their neighbors very miserable.”
And then there are the youthful rich and famous whose lives have become too-good-to-pass-up monologue material for late-night talk-show hosts. The nonmedical term for this problem is: too much money, too fast, too easy.
The truth is that captains and kings can be as miserable as the most poverty-stricken among us. A good lesson to draw from all this is that it’s a mistake to spend your life yearning for money. It’s far better to seek the path that leads to being a better person and living a meaningful, fulfilling life.
But with a guy sitting on a sidewalk and begging for a few coins, it’s different. He wants my help; he wants your help. Not help in getting sober, cleaning himself up, landing a job, or bettering his life. Forget about all that. It’s not going to happen — not with my help, not with your help, not with the help of professional do-gooders, and certainly not with government help.
Nevertheless, I feel a compulsion to meet that street person in the hurt, which is why I usually go out of my way to give him a dollar or so. I know he’s going to spend it on cheap wine or drugs, but I don’t care. What I care about is that the meager sum I hand him will give him some momentary pleasure, i.e., instant gratification, something that I fight against with a passion in my own life.
The difference between the street person and screwed-up celebrities is that the street person has no life. When someone is dying of cancer, you give him instant gratification in the form of morphine. It’s the same with a street person and his desire for drugs and alcohol.
I don’t give out of guilt. I give because I know that this person is going to live out the remainder of his relatively short lifespan enduring a kind of pain that is incomprehensible for you or me to imagine. I give because I know that but for the grace of God, there go I. Something human inside me senses this and makes me want to meet him in the hurt, if only for a moment.
I know that something, somewhere along the line, caused this pitiful soul to take a wrong turn in the road. And something genetic or environmental has kept him from rising up and fighting the good fight. Something has totally defeated him, something that will forever remain a mystery to the thousands of people who pass by him each day.
Whenever I come across a street beggar, it’s also a reminder to me of how minor my problems are in comparison to the problems of those who have permanently lost their way on this side of the secular/nonsecular divide.
What I have said in this article is not an appeal for you to follow my lead. What you do in your life, and with your life, is strictly your business. But what I hope you take away from this article is an increased capacity to keep your own problems in perspective. In addition, I hope it will make you think about how fortunate you are that you haven’t taken that wrong turn in the road — or, if you have, that you were able to find your way back.
Above all, I hope my words remind you just how important it is to make the effort to at least meet your friends and loved ones in the hurt, particularly your children. Love and understanding could very well be the difference between a child’s becoming an honor student and going on to have a super-successful business and personal life … or evolving into an angry kid in a black trench coat whose life ends in tragedy.