Faculty Notebook: Giving involves self-forgetting
by Cynthia Beach
His skin wears an orange cast as if he’d forgotten to remove thick stage makeup. But he isn’t an actor—just some homeless guy at a Tennessee B&P gas station, leaning against the outside wall, his frayed blue hood up. In a better life, he’d have neared handsome, the large brown eyes, the dark brows. A beard blurs his jaw.
I ease by to the glass door. Self consciousness riddles me. Should I say “hi”? Should I ignore him? I do neither; I simply nod. He nods too. I think, I could be you.
I was a dentist’s daughter who’d learned that if you don’t like the carpeting, buy new. If you want a horse, buy two. If you like tennis, buy the house with a court. Dad’s career gave me things. Good clothes. Good schools. Good opportunities.
However, conviction began its work. In grad school, communications theorist Jacques Ellul coached me about money: Give it away. That’s the only freedom.
But I liked my money. I didn’t want to give it away. In fact, I wanted more. Getting what I wanted wound around me a thick white cottony shell. I lived in a cocoon of met desires. And I didn’t even know it. Unfortunately, this cocoon hadn’t the power to create butterflies. It left worms.
As I moved away from Dad’s money, things changed. My employer offered low wages. I couldn’t afford food, rent and Ann Taylor suits. This loss I could outsmart. I shopped consignment shops and Good Will. I could still have my excess. It just had to cost less.
Conviction worked harder. When Hurricane Katrina tore ordinary life from thousands, I saw what I gave: $3. I was Ebenezer Scrooge reincarnated. I was finally getting onto myself.
And the new economy empowered the conviction. My husband Dave’s practice toppled two years ago when Michigan cut counseling funds for the poor. Then in December, Cornerstone warned me that I may join those unexpectedly unemployed.
The crisis ratcheted the American dream from how I understood God and my life. Was God’s blessing really about the brand of clothing I wore? Yet I struggled. I ached. I wanted the old way back. Security. Growth. Excess. Wouldn’t I get a fantasy life too?
The cocoon unraveled. How did others in the world live? Able to afford $150 worth of flowers each spring? No. Clothes worn briefly and then replaced? No. I started to look square at the answer. I was starting to feel their struggle.
When my joblessness became certain, I worried. I ground my teeth and lost sleep. Will we lose our home?
So I think as I pass the homeless man, I could be you.
The thought agitates me; I move around the B&P. Candy bars, gum, pop, energy drinks and water stuff shelves. Peanut M&M’s. Plain. Boxed M&M’s. Bagged. Barbecue sunflower seeds. Regular. I see it — this gross excess. And beyond it all stands the homeless man. It isn’t only a wall and a window that separated him from the store goods.
Leaving, I pass him again to climb into the car, my heart hammering, Do something! I lean into the back and clasp a peanut butter sandwich. “Will you see if he wants it?”
“Oh … yeah.” Dave leaves the car.
Orange fingers clasp soft bread. The saran wrap comes off and brown eyes brighten. He lifts a hand, its fingers splayed, and waves.
My impulse lessens my lunch. I only have half a sandwich now. I even eat the crust. Of course, he now has something too.
But I still miss it. My cocoon. Wearying pressures don’t exist in there except for the overwhelming majority of others who live beyond its white cottony shell.