When I was a missionary, I participated in a giant service project in which hundreds of young adults went and visited elderly, disabled and otherwise infirm individuals through Salt Lake. I went with a group of about 20 people to the home of a man who had no legs. It was a singularly beautiful experience, watching these people truly show love and friendship to this man who was so unlike them. It didn't seem like a chore or an assignment; rather, it seemed like a privilege.
I filed it away under "nice moments" until several weeks later, driving past Temple Square, when I saw this man again. He was begging for money.
I was stunned. I remember a sinking feeling as I tried to process what I'd seen. I just didn't know how to handle someone whom I had met being a panhandler, which isn't bad but is certainly otherizing. At the time I was going to Temple Square every week, sometimes more often, and it was entirely feasible I'd see him again. I wondered what I should do -- ignore him so he wasn't embarrassed? (And neither was I?) Talk to him? Give him money?
I never saw him again, but I thought about him for the rest of my mission. It's now been more than three years since that experience, and instead of uncomfortably otherizing people, I've opted for selective blindness with a side of rationalization. I don't make that much money, and there's nothing wrong with me spending what I need to on myself. I mean, I worked hard for it. Plus, I'm saving for law school, and I have grand plans to really help people with my law degree. How will I be my nephews' favorite aunt if I don't get what are seriously the coolest Christmas presents ever? I'm just tired. Surely somebody else will help.
But every now and then, I really stop and look honestly at my reasons for not doing more. And not one of them holds any water. I may not be a millionaire, but I have never once gone hungry and I doubt I ever will. I've never worried about where rent is coming from or had to keep the heat turned off because I couldn't afford the bill. My only period of "unemployment" was spent in my mom's house. Peanut butter costs $4, and that's the good brand. I can afford that. I'm going to make a far, far better lawyer if I do truly care about other people, and caring is much more than just words or attitudes. My nephews are going to love their gifts, but they know I love them. They know their parents and grandparents and other aunts and uncles love them. They know God loves them.
And yes, somebody else may help. But that doesn't take away my responsibility to help. Besides, why would I want to give up the way I feel when I make eye contact with one of God's children who is suffering and know that I can, in however small a way, alleviate that suffering? They don't need my judgment, my pity or my fixedly straightforward eyes while I avoid looking at them. They need to know they're not alone in the world, just like we all do.