What difference do we make?

By Jan Richman Schulman 11/23/2011

I have a friend. She is my dearest, most cherished, loved friend. We met in an orphanage where we lived as teenagers. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her at least once. We talk numerous times during the week on the phone. We see each other once a month. (She lives in Marina del Rey.) We e-mail constantly. We are like chocolate and vanilla, night and day, matzos and bagels, opposites. But … I filter so much of my day through her. What would she think of this? Would she like that? How would she handle this situation? Oops, she wouldn’t approve of that. It doesn’t change what I do, or affect my decisions. It just gives me a clear objective way to look at what I am doing at any given time.

There is a man. He’s about 60 years old. He speaks only Spanish. He is very dirty and is dressed always in the same torn, layered clothing, some men’s, some women’s. He just piles on what he can find to keep warm. He is lame and missing several teeth. His skin is dark and pitted, and I do not know if some of the spots on his face are dirt or growths. He sits outside the market on some mornings, under the cover of the market’s rain shield. When he is there, I invite him into the doughnut shop next door, where I buy my morning drink on Thursdays. We cannot speak to each other, but he manages to communicate that he wants a large coffee with half and half and lots of sugar, and a fat, hot cheese croissant. I pay for him and he thanks me (“gracias … gracias…”) and takes his breakfast outside, where he sits back down at his little table, surrounded by his plastic sacks of personal belongings. He smiles and waves at me when I leave. I wonder about him for the rest of the week, and I feel glad that he is eating something warm right then and it is giving him pleasure. Sometimes, when I’m flush, I will also slip him five dollars. (He never asks.)

I go on my way and I think: Is that making any difference to him? How does it affect his life? Where does he sleep at night? I can’t afford to pay for a hotel room for him, or do much more than I do on Thursday mornings. And then I think, does anything we do make any difference? Does a dollar here, five dollars there, influence anything on this earth?

A few years ago, after giving some money to a homeless person, I turned to go away and suddenly turned back, put my hand on his shoulder and said: “Please take care of yourself.” He looked at me, his face lit up, his eyes teared a little, and he said “Thank you. God bless you.” That’s when I decided that, even though I don’t have the money to remove even one person from the street, I can at least let one person at a time know that there is someone on this planet who really does care. I always speak and touch now. Sometimes I can see that the person is shy, embarrassed, uncomfortable, and slipping them a few dollars, I merely touch a sleeve and wish them well. Respect is essential.

I have been “warned” by friends and acquaintances that giving money to homeless individuals on the street is a fool’s errand. “… They are alcoholics; they are drug addicts; they are criminals; they are too lazy to work; they are scam artists …,” ad infinitum. My response: “I don’t care. If they use my money to buy themselves a drink, I don’t care. If they use it to buy drugs, I don’t care. The fact is, if I can offer one moment — just one — where they can feel a connection to another single human being who gives a damn about them, then I will have accomplished my purpose; that being, to let them know that I care. They are not just a walking mass of humanity; they are single, important, human individuals, and for at least that moment, they matter, as one, to one.

My friend and I do things differently. She always looks at the big picture and is an organizer of groups and functions. She wants to reach out to numerous people, offering insights on how we live, and why, and what we can do to make it better. She has been able to see objective, far-reaching results of her efforts. She is very effective. She reaches many.

Me … I just reach out on a one-on-one basis. I don’t like committees and meetings. I like looking into a person’s eyes, seeing a momentary connection, a fleeting bit of joy, if it can be called that. I always hope that that moment will have made its little bit of difference, not as far-reaching as my friend’s, but perhaps as important.

So this morning, driving to FOOD Share, an organization where I volunteer every week, and which I strongly believe in, I was thinking about our lives, how we move through the world and through time, touching others — or not. I think that my friend accomplishes so much for so many. I hope that I accomplish for just one. I think that maybe our purpose here may be different for each one of us, but that each one of us matters, no matter how we do it.

Sometimes, it is just a word. Sometimes it is foundations. Sometimes it is a dollar. Sometimes it is hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it does always start with one, doesn’t it? And maybe that is our purpose: To be the best possible single person we can be and to never forget that the person we pass on the street is also human and deserves our compassion and the knowledge that he/she truly does matter. God, I just hope I make a difference.

Jan Richman Schulman lives in Oxnard.

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