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The Greatest Gift is an Opportunity to be Kind.

I recently read Joe Vitale’s blog where he talked about giving. It brought up a lot of memories for me. I wrote a comment to that blog and then decided to share it here in more detail. My story begins somewhere in the late 1980ies. At that time, the streets of San Francisco were already overwhelmed by the homeless people who seemed to be taking over the city. They were everywhere. At every stop light, at every major intersection, at most of the corners downtown, in the doorways of the buildings, at the store entrances, even at the outdoor cafes. You couldn’t walk downtown without being stopped every couple of minutes by someone with an empty paper cup asking for money. It was a painful scene. Uncomfortable to some, angering to others. There was a lot of blame, a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of guilt. Some of these people were mentally ill, some were drug addicts. Some were victims of tragic circumstances trying to get back on their feet, others had made panhandling their profession. The city paid the price. Tourism dropped and kept on dropping. Businesses closed. People drove with their windows rolled up and began to avoid the city. Every day I would walk by the San Francisco homeless holding their signs in their outstretched hands. I gave money to some and I passed the others. I acted purely on intuition. Sometimes I would give $5, or $2, or $20, or nothing at all. At times I was irritated, or angry for being pestered, other times I was filled with compassion. We had a problem and the solution was nowhere in sight. There was a woman “working” my neighborhood who looked as if she was a step away from death. Paper white skin, red lesions covering her face. I was certain she had AIDS. I didn’t give her money when I saw her the first time and regretted it later. Somehow her image had stayed with me. I started looking for her, but she seemed to have vanished. After a while, I decided that she might have died. Still I thought about her and began sending her energy in my meditations. What if she were alive? What if I could help her? A few years passed. She had not returned, and by then I was certain she was dead. One evening after a wonderful dinner with friends, as I was walking to the garage to pick up my car, there she was! “It is you!” I cried out unable to hide my excitement. She was startled. I smiled. “I remember you from downtown,” I said. The lesions on her face were gone. She smiled back. I gave her $20, more grateful to be able to do it than she was to receive it. I wished her well and left. “Good for you,” I thought walking away. “You made it after all.” After that I ran into her regularly. Her name was Tara. She was in her 30ies and her lesions had not been caused by AIDS. She had a nervous habit of picking at her face until it bled and so the lesions would return again and again. She was homeless but she had “a partner” with whom she shared the money. He protected her and she took care of him. This was the extent of the story she told me. It was a life I knew nothing about. A life in the streets. It felt hopeless, dangerous and lonely. By then Tara had lost almost all her teeth and looked like an old woman. Every time she’d see me, she would run to me excited. It wasn’t just the $20 she got from me every time (her usual allowance by then.) I knew she was genuinely happy to see me. We became pals of a sort. Passers-by raised their eye brows. My friends at first shrugged, and then started giving her money as well. Over time, she met my son who would give her money as well. This went on for a few years. Tara showed no interest in changing her life. I asked her gently, I probed, I made a few suggestions, but there was nowhere further to go. In some ways she was too far gone to find the will and the courage to make a different choice. I accepted that and didn’t try to “save” her. Who was I tell another human being how she should or should not learn her lessons? I didn’t judge her for her choices. I didn’t pressure her to change. I might have helped her gladly, but the choice had to be hers. And her choice was to stay in the street. At the end of 2000, I moved to New York City and when I returned, in spring of 2002, Tara was gone. I never saw her again. I wonder if she is still alive. It was a hard life. You seldom live long under those conditions. I think about her from time to time. I think about the gift she has given me. I might have brightened her days with a bit of money and friendship. But she gave me a lot more. Dalai Lama said his religion was kindness. This was Tara’s gift to me. Her gift to me was an opportunity to be kind. I know of no greater gift.

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Have you had similar experiences? I would be honored if you’d share them in the comments. If you give me permission, I can put them up on my blog as well. Let’s inspire each other to be kinder and more loving. And thanks for coming here and reading my musings. I very much enjoy writing them.

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