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Reflecting on Paying it Forward

With Mitch Synder at a CCNV Christmas party in 1989.
With Mitch Synder at a CCNV Christmas party in 1989.

I strongly believe in “paying if forward.” For the uninitiated that essentially means that the beneficiary of a good deed repays it by doing a kindness to others.

People who are genuinely compassionate don’t go around doing good deeds with the expectation that they will be compensated. Many of us do kind things simply because it’s our nature. Although I strongly believe in the karmic law of return, I have no expectation that the kindnesses I extend to others will be repaid. If it is, then so be it. My reward is in knowing that in some small way I made a difference in someone’s life; just as kind acts by others toward me – in the past and present – has made a difference in my life.

Sadly, there are people who mistake kindness for weakness, and they come to expect that others will always answer their plea for help. (A saint would likely do that. Need I say that while I consider myself to be a good person, I am not a saint.)  I take issue with people who – whether they are temporarily down on their luck or seem to be stuck indefinitely behind the eight ball – feel that their fellowmen and women owe them something. And although it is not always the homeless or destitute who have that attitude, this post is about a street person who must believe that I’ve adopted him. I will call him Sselemoh. Don’t try to pronounce it. It is simply homeless spelled backward.

Sselemoh lives somewhere in my neighborhood. Where, I don’t know. But I’ve seen him walking the area often enough over the past few years to draw that conclusion. No matter what the season, he is always wearing the same linty, moth-eaten wool jacket and dirt-caked faded jeans. When the weather is warm, his rosewood complexion glistens with perspiration, and his thinning salt and pepper afro and shaggy beard appear to drip with sweat. He reminds me of the fictional character, Uncle Remus.

Sselemoh might be in his late seventies, although his, timeworn face, scattered and missing teeth, and unkempt appearance makes him appear much older. I imagine that at some point in his younger years, he may have stood at least six feet tall, but his physique is now curved forward like an archer’s bow, and he hobbles as though he is dragging his life on a ball and chain behind him.

I occasionally see Sselemoh when I am walking to the store or other places in the community. Sometimes when I am passing him, he will merely hold out his hand and say nothing. At other times he will hold it out and ask forcefully, “Got any spare change?” (Spare change! Every penny I own is essential; I don’t have spare money.) It’s the first thought I have whenever I hear that question, and I want to say it, but I say nothing. Instead, if I have a few dollars on me, I may give him a couple of them. Otherwise, I shake my head, negative, and keep moving.

One cold morning, several weeks ago, as I am walking by a fast food restaurant,  I see Sselemoh outside the place. He is leaning over a beat-up, newspaper vending box with both of his elbows resting on top of it. His ashy hands are clasped, fingers entwined, in front of him. His expression is, as I’ve only seen it, somber. When he sees me, he pushed himself upright.

The wind is gusty, and I immediately think, he needs a hat that is until my comedic side imagines him thinking here comes my ATM.  As usual, he asks me for some spare change so he can get something to eat, so he says. I ignore the request for money, and instead tell him that I will buy him breakfast. Without changing his facial expressionn, he nods his head slowly up and down and continues to stand beside the box, watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse as I go into McDonald’s. I buy two breakfast sandwiches and a large cup of coffee; place extra cream, sugar, salt, pepper and napkins inside the bag and then go outside to hand it to him.

Before I fully extend my arms, he grabs the bag as if he thinks I might change my mind. Then, without saying “Thank you,” he says in a demanding tone. “Cream and sugar? You get cream and sugar? I got to have cream and sugar.”

“It’s in the bag,” I replied. I bit my bottom lip, and then walked on my way, leaving his thank you unsaid, and trying to convince myself that his priority was not to remember to express gratitude. It was to feed his hunger. That brief exchange was the longest conversation we’ve ever had since I’ve been seeing him around.

Lately, whenever I see him leaning against a building or shuffling along the street – I spot him before he sees me. That gives me time to prepare to deny him politely, or I change direction. I am a generous person, but I don’t have Oprah’s millions. While my heart may be willing, there is a limit to my generosity.

Perhaps because my mother raised her children to be caring people, I’ve always felt tremendous empathy for the homeless. Years ago, I periodically volunteered at the Community for Creative Nonviolence. CCNV was a well-known homeless shelter in DC run by popular homeless advocate, Mitch Snyder. So, I am not repulsed by the homeless; I simply know that I can’t help them all and sometimes I can’t even help a few.

Many of my friends and associates are in the same financial situation as I am. We are not wealthy or naively convinced that we are financially secure for life. We count our blessings every day because we know that at any moment, on any day, an unexpected problem could occur that might not only wipe us out financially but would turn our currently stable little world upside down. A serious health ailment. A bad accident. Fire, flood or a natural disaster. Any unexpected misfortune could put any of us in dire circumstances.

So, like most benevolent people, I do what I can when I can, and if there is karmic payback, perhaps it will be in kind.