On Nov 11 of 2006, I made a deal with myself that I would give $1 to every homeless person who asked.
Still, to be honest, I embarked on this experiment thinking that I would just bleed money, that there would be 20 or so homeless people a day coming up to me in NYC and that I would run out of money soon.
This never happened.
When I returned to NY, it took 8 days before I walked past a homeless person who asked me for some spare change. And by that time I had seen the folly of my own mind and was more than happy to part with a measly dollar. It wasn’t about the money, though. In fact, it was never about the money. It was me and my mind getting comfortable with giving and giving from a place of not having a lot of resources (as a budding actor). Still, I have more than they and it felt so good. I continue to do this experiment today.
Fast forward to last week. Just returning from a 10 day meditation retreat, I had a more intense awareness of this little experiment. As my friend would say,
“How could I step it up?!?”
Here’s what happened.
On my way to my NYU grad acting audition, I ran across two homeless persons — a woman named Francine and a man named Barret. I told Francine I’d be right back because I had to tell a friend where I was; and I gave Barret $1. When I came back Francine was in tears. After a big hug, she went on to tell me that nobody listened to her.
Nobody looked at her, people just walked right by her and didn’t even acknowledge that she was alive. My heart broke.
We hugged on the street for a few seconds and then I asked her if she’d like something to eat. She said yes, and we went into the local McDonalds. Through her sobs and laughs, we ordered her a #6 fish meal (supersized of course!) … I gave her a $20, told her I had to run and said I’d see her soon. I left feeling helpless.
The next day, when I walked past Barret I gave him a dollar again. To give you a visual, Barret is in his late 30’s and is a cross between a guru and John Lennon. A completely free spirit, as far as I can tell. He’s reading books about psychology and physics and always tells me about his platonic girlfriends that he has that come around to him for conversation.
I don’t even know why I did it, but I just sat down to be with him. I had “be the change” ringing in my head. So what did I want to see more of in the world? I want to see more compassion, more people stopping and helping the homeless, acknowledging that they are alive and realizing that parting with $1 isn’t about the money. It’s about helping them push through their own fear of change and enhance compassion in their lives.
And so, I sat with Barret, in the cold, for an hour and a half. We drank hot chocolate and asked for spare change from people.
Mostly I just listened and was extremely humbled by the experience of simply sitting and watching my perspective change from being someone who simply walks by to someone who’s now an unprivileged pan-handler.
As we were talking, he was telling me about how upset he becomes when people don’t acknowledge him or they’ll crack up at his funny sign (“Voldermort broke my want. need $ for a new one”) but not leave anything in return.
New York. It’s a city of takers, with very few true givers in the bunch. Over an hour and a half he made .70 cents. That’s right, CENTS. He said on a good day he’ll make between $7 and $11. I was hit so hard by this. How could I not have seen this all these years in New York City?
My meditation practice and gift-economy friends at CharityFocus have changed me forever, for good. I’m seeing things clearer and I’m able to act with compassion in ways that I’ve never seen before.
As I left, Barret said;
“Four or five times in a year, I get a twenty dollar bill and that’s amazing!”
And with a child-like awe, he added,;
“I actually have a friend who even got $100 once!!!”
I knew right then that I was going to give him everything I had.
I didn’t even count the money in my wallet. I just gave it all, it was probably more than $200. I didn’t miss it. More will come and go in the future, but in that moment, I got to give someone a dream, a little hope and if only for 5 minutes, peace of mind that the world isn’t a dark, cynical, selfish place. Hopefully Barret will continue to explore the space in that window of hope, and I’ll continue to do everything I can to help him on his path.
Next up, we’re making him a new sign. His idea.
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