It was one of those small encounters that lodges in the mind like a pebble in the shoe: A few years ago, walking back from the market at dusk, I heard a muffled keening coming from a pile of discarded coats on the sidewalk 20 yards ahead. The sound became more intense as I approached, a kind of Doppler effect, until I made out a man about my age, wrapped in layers of outerwear, loudly demanding a handout. I gave him a dollar and, for good measure, dug into my bag for an apple. But my conscience was hardly appeased.
Street people. The homeless. Truth be told, most of us find them an annoyance. They barge into public space (sometimes their smell, supernally potent, intrudes first), interrupting our train of thought or flow of conversation. Haven’t they brought this on themselves in some way (in some way we clearly haven’t)? Why don’t they get a job, bootstrap themselves out of purgatory? We avert our eyes, feign sudden deafness, sidestep them as they sprawl at our feet. We’re as eager to cross paths with them as we would be with Marley’s Ghost.
That I had barely helped the man had a sting of irony, as I’d just begun researching a new book on empathy, altruism, and compassion. Browsing for quotes, I’d stumbled on Works of Love, a tome by the alternately cranky and transcendent 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose moral scolding had instantly gotten under my skin. When he mocked that person who is “never among the more lowly”; who “will go about with closed eyes… when he moves around in the human throng”; and jeered the existential snob who “thinks he exists only for the distinguished, that he is to live only in the alliance of their circles,” well… I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know whom he was talking about.
In fact, I was anticipating a rather gala break in my writing schedule: a trip to Cannes and then on to a farmhouse in glorious Provence, an offer from a jetsetting filmmaker buddy I could hardly refuse.
But then another invitation had suddenly cropped up in the same calendar slot, this one from a group called the Zen Peacemaker Order, to go on what they called a “street retreat.” With the back of my neck still prickling under Kierkegaard’s gaze (to say nothing of my editor’s), I decided to stay on the ground. Literally. The retreat rules were simple: Hit the pavement unbathed and unshaven, without money or change of clothes, joining for the better part of a week the ranks of those whom life had kicked to the curb. A sojourn in the land of ain’t got nothin’, got nothin’ to lose might, I thought, pierce my bystander’s armor.
It’s a spiritual truism that trading places with the less fortunate, psychologically if not literally, can be a powerful motive for doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. The Bible Code doesn’t require decryption by a helium-cooled supercomputer. The sacred heart of Jesus simply means that I don’t just pity the unfortunate—rather, I am the unfortunate: the outcast, the sick, the naked and hungry. The high-living rake of Assisi who would become St. Francis had an impulse one day to hand his fine coat to a beggar and, donning the other’s rags, began his great conversion. Even capitalist godfather Adam Smith, that apostle of self-interest, once suggested that true compassion means “I not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and characters.” Why? In order that, he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, my feelings might become “entirely upon your account, and not in the least upon my own.” This swapping of self and other, says the Buddhist sage Shantideva, leads to genuine compassion: “An attitude of wanting to protect others as oneself, and to protect all that belongs to them with the same care as if it were one’s own.”
Not that I expected a week of contrived homelessness to produce, via some spiritual warp-drive, a saintly quantum leap. But I’d at least walk a mile in the other guy’s moccasins and see how far I got.
The street retreats are the brainchild of Bernie Glassman. A bearded, portly former aerospace engineer ordained as a Buddhist roshi, Bernie had been looking for ways to integrate spiritual practice with compassionate social action. Sometime in the 1980s, he decided to spend a few months walking aimlessly around the inner-city Bronx neighborhood that abutted his meditation center, hanging out, talking with people in his cannily receptive way, listening to their problems. Out of this had grown, as naturally and prolifically as a zucchini patch, a sprawling multimillion-dollar social organization serving the rebuked and the scorned.
First there was the Greyston Bakery, which employed people just getting out of prison or off the street. The business grew, eventually snagging a contract to make brownies for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. But it soon came smack up against the endemic problems of the neighborhood. People missed work because of drug problems. Batches of dough were ruined because employees lacked basic math skills to measure ingredients or the reading skills to decipher labels on cans. But each problem had suggested, after trial and error, its own solution. The Greyston Mandala that emerged from Bernie’s first street-scuffing walkabout now trains, employs, houses, and provides health services to hundreds of the formerly marginal, as well as offering care and housing to people with AIDS on the site of a former Catholic nunnery.
When Bernie’s 55th birthday rolled around, rather than resting on his laurels, he decided to spend a few days sitting homeless on the steps of the Capitol, figuring out what next to do with his life. During what turned out to be Washington, D.C.’s coldest, snowiest week in half a century, he dreamed up the multifaith Peacemaker Order, a spiritual path based on just bearing witness and seeing what happened.
“When we bear witness,” he wrote, “when we become the situation—homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death—then right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do.
We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time… It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles, or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor.”
You could say, Witness, schmitness. Fine for Bernie, with his track record of weaving straw into gold. But if he hadn’t recommended it, I’d be hard put to justify my week of taking to the streets in a bum costume, as if I and my fellow retreatants didn’t have somewhere better to go. What I had to tell myself was, at least for this interlude, there would be no “better,” and no worse.
The haunted street
And so I find myself living on the streets of Denver, dressed in ratty, stinking clothes, a toothbrush in my pocket and a week’s worth of stubble on my cold-reddened cheeks. I’m hoping to discover some way to be a little less full of myself; to see if more kindness might arise if I persuade Mr. Ego to move out for a week.
But what I find arising is my innate irritability. I can be impatient, and homelessness involves lots of waiting: waiting for a soup kitchen to open, then waiting for your number to be called for a meal; waiting for the rain or snow to let up, or for a cop to stop looking your way. It’s a different map of the world: Which Starbucks has a security guard who’ll let you use the bathroom? How long can you linger in this place or that before you’re rousted? It’s pretty much a stray dog’s life, sniffing for a bone to gnaw, a tree to piss on, knowing nobody wants you, wary of the company you keep.
And what to make of my new company? My friend Søren K., in his tough-old-bird fashion, argued against harboring any delusions that “by loving some people, relatives and friends, you would be loving the neighbor.” No, he squawked, the real point is “to frighten you out of the beloved haunts of preferential love.” Most of my new neighbors are haunted. Life has failed them, or they’ve failed it. A tall, stringy young man with lank, black-dyed hair, tattooed like a Maori, tells me, “If you see Sherry, tell her Big John’s back from Oklahoma.” His eyes have the jittery glint of crank, each pupil a spinning disco ball, fitfully sparkling. An alcoholic Indian vet yanks open his shirt to show me his scars—the roundish puckers from shrapnel, the short, telegraphic dashes from ritual piercing at a Sun Dance—weeping over a life he no longer wants.
An angry-looking man approaches me to ask—to demand—that I give him a plastic fork, purpose unknown. When I demur, he stalks over to the dumpster and scrabbles through it unproductively.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I’ll just bet you are,” he snarls, then raises both middle fingers, staring into my eyes with cold fury.
I can’t say I’m pleased to meet him, but WWKD: What Would Kierkegaard Do? “Root out all equivocation and fastidiousness in loving them!” Sir, yessir. The Buddhist sage Atisha recommended a prayer upon encountering those folks who mess with our minds: When I see beings of a negative disposition, or those oppressed by negativity or pain, may I, as if finding a treasure, consider them precious.
Every cerebral word of this homily is not running through my head as I step toward my new neighbor with a little faux-nod of appreciation, hoping he hasn’t stashed a ball-peen hammer in his coat. But he backs away, lips curled, then turns and runs, pursued by some host of invisibles. At least, I tell myself, I’ve managed to become more curious about him than repulsed, mindful that the more I amp up my judgment of others, the more I empower that ogre of criticism that grinds my own bones to make its bread. Really, I don’t know how these guys drove their lives into the ditch, or how to winch them out. I try to stay present, feeling my heart’s systole and diastole, its sympathies opening, closing, opening, closing.
The debt of love
I’m willing to practice extending those sympathies to my street neighbors. But I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about doing what the Zen Peacemaker Order refers to as “begging practice.” The thought horrifies me. Sure, I’ve done that high-class begging known as fundraising, palm outstretched for checks written out to high-minded projects. But I’ve always felt it was worth the other person’s while; there were good deeds to show for it. Here on the street I, the beggar, have nothing to offer the beggee. There is no mutual exchange, just an imbalance of boons. I’m a walking bundle of needs, and it galls me.
Besides, it isn’t easy to get those needs met. Faces turn to stone at my plea for food money. Eyes flicker sideways, ahead to the middle distance, to the ground, anywhere but the empty space where I’m standing. The Confucians of the Sung Dynasty compared not feeling compassion for a stranger to not feeling that your own foot’s caught fire, and too many of us seem to have gone numb. (I think of an acquaintance of mine, a much-awarded designer of leafy town squares in the New Urbanist style. “Of course,” he once said to me ruefully, “the more open space, the bigger the quotient of ‘bummage.’”)
Bummage I am. I supplicate downtown pedestrians, dauntingly busy on their way from here to there, clutching purses and shopping bags and cell phones and lovers’ waists. I recognize the filmy bubble of self-concept that surrounds them, that protective aura of specialness. How often do most of us secretly say to ourselves that we’re smarter, stronger, taller, more charming than average; have a cooler job, a more lovely spouse, more accomplished children that we are (somehow) more spiritual, even more selfless? Anything is grist for the mill of selfhood versus otherness, of the gourmet-flavored me versus plain-vanilla everyone else. I, too, have achieved my differentiation at some cost and considerable effort; even here, hugging the ground, I resist inhabiting the same universe as the full-time failures.
But I’m already there in one respect: My panhandling talents are nil. Each rejection thuds like a body blow. I can see the little comic-strip thought balloon spring from people’s brows—Get a job; I work! It occurs to me to just forget it. Though we’ve agreed that during the week we’d each scrape up $3.50 for the bus fare home, throwing any extra into the kitty for the homeless shelter, I think, Why put myself through it? I’ll send a check when I get home.
But I’m hungry now. I’m also starting to realize that there’s more to “begging practice” than meets the eye. Roshi Bernie Glassman has explained it with disarming simplicity: “When we don’t ask, we don’t let others give. When we fear rejection, we don’t let generosity arise.” I realize that the street, much like a meditation cushion, has put my issues on parade, and this begging routine’s got them goose-stepping smartly past the reviewing stand. There’s the Humiliation Battalion. The Fear of Rejection Brigade. The Undeserving Auxiliary. And of course, the Judgment Detachment—for I find I’m even judging my potential donors (are they good enough to give me a dollar?).
My profound reluctance to ask passersby for help feels not unlike my aversion to calling friends when I’m needful in other ways, those times when I’m feeling sad, lost, lonely, bereft. I prize autonomy; I’m overly proud of it. I don’t want to owe people for my well-being. Or just maybe I don’t want to owe them my love. I wonder suddenly if I’m not rejecting gratitude itself, that spiritual 3-in-1 oil said to open the creakiest gate around the heart? Aren’t we all in debt—to our parents, teachers, friends, and loved ones—for our very existence?
But dear Søren Kierkegaard thought even this was a crock. Sure, he said, we think the person who is loved owes a debt of gratitude to the one who loves them. There is an expectation that it should be repaid in kind, on installment, “reminiscent,” he says sarcastically, “of an actual bookkeeping arrangement.” Instead, he turns the whole thing on its head: “No, the one who loves runs into debt; in feeling himself gripped by love, he feels this as being in an infinite debt. Amazing!”
Amazing. It is his most radical proposition: We owe those who elicit love from us for allowing us to be overfilled with the stuff. We owe a debt to those who suffer because they draw forth our tenderness. (Do I think that by avoiding others’ suffering, I can hoard my stash of good feelings and not get bummed out? The “helper’s high” phenomenon suggests the opposite: It’s giving that turns on the juice, taps us into the infinite current.) Giving and taking start to seem less like zero-sum transactions than some universal love-circuitry, where what goes around not only comes around but comes back redoubled.
Still, “How’d you like to enter into Kierkegaard’s infinite debt of love?” is not going to win Year’s Best Panhandling Line. I ask a stylish young guy—No War: Not in Our Name button on his fawn-colored coat, canvas messenger bag in muted gray—if he can spare a little change for food. He calls out chidingly over his shoulder, “I don’t give on the street.” Fair enough. But the bank building’s LED thermometer reads 25 degrees, and the sun still hasn’t gone down. I haven’t had dinner. Sleeping on the street is a frigid proposition, and body heat requires calories. Then I realize I’m judging him and everyone else, defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. I make a point to mentally bless all comers and goers.
I approach a bearded guy in a fringed suede jacket. He declines, but hangs around as if waiting for someone. A few minutes later, hearing me unsuccessfully petition a half dozen more people, he comes over and hands me two dollars, cautioning sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone I gave it to you,” as if worried I’d alert a Fagin’s gang of accomplices.
I’ve now streamlined my pitch: “I’m sleeping on the street tonight, I’m hungry. I wonder if you could help me out at all?” Most people’s eyes still slam down like steel shutters over a storefront at closing time, but then, “... Could you help me out?” and a man who’s just passed me with a curt No pivots abruptly, yanked like a puppet by his heartstrings, and walks back with a green bill. “On second thought, I can.” And I see in that moment how much more effort it takes to resist the raw tug of each other’s existence.
I strike out another 20 or 30 times before a crisp-looking gent crosses my palm with silver. “Thanks so much, it’s chilly out tonight,” I mumble, surprised after so many averted gazes. “It is cold,” he says sympathetically, and those three words restore my faith.
A week later, back home again, I’m delighted to be sleeping in my own bed. Bathed, shaved, fed, dressed, I take a walk on the mall with a friend. He looks at me askance as I press a dollar into a panhandler’s palm and then, seeing how browbeaten the man looks, peel off another two and chat with him for a while.
I’m trying to become insufferably virtuous, I tell my friend. How am I doing?
Great, he replies, you’re getting on my nerves.
These days, I give money to the people with cardboard signs who stake out corners on trafficked streets, remembering when I was stranded once on the highway, having to scare up a ride with my own magic-markered plea. One guy comes up to the window to recite his story as my car idles at a light. He’s a former truck driver with a neck injury, he says, saving up for surgery. He seems utterly sincere, though I’m not sure that matters: I know he must have his reasons. I hand him a bill and drive off. Then, feeling suddenly touched, I circle the block and cut recklessly through two lanes of traffic to give him another. “For your medical fund,” I yell, practically hurling a tenner at him to beat the light. “God bless you, you and your family,” he yells after me; and yes, I think, he’s for real, and yes, I also think, how Dickensian: Oh, kind sir. But I also mentally thank him for helping me sink deeper into that debt that swallows all others and makes them small—small, and of no consequence.
I won’t claim I’ve evolved that much. Not in a week or two; not in a few months. Sure, I help out, sometimes, at the local soup kitchen; kick in for the anti-homelessness coalition. But I do feel as if my inner pockets have been turned inside out, shaking loose some small change in my life. I’ve developed an ineluctable soft spot. I can’t help but notice the people at the margins, the ones who used to be the extras in my movie. Knowing a little of how they feel makes me an easy touch. The money I give out sometimes mounts up, 20, 30 bucks a month, unburdening the wallet, filling the heart’s purse. Until I figure out what I can do to really change things—or until the world becomes a different place—this feels better than okay.