A little over a year ago, in anticipation of my 50th birthday, I did a deep dive into who I am, what I stand for and how I want to live my life. I got really clear on my core values – what I believe, what serves as my guide for making choices. I also started paying close attention to what happens when I live my life out of alignment with my values. And I developed some adjustment practices to help me re-align when I notice something’s off. I call them chiropractic for my soul.
I previously shared an interview with singer/songwriter Jewel talking about how every night she assesses how well she lived according to her values that day – where she made aligned choices and where she fell short, and what she commits to do better or differently the next day to improve her alignment. In doing that practice myself, I noticed a consistent gap.
When I first moved to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1994, there was no shortage of people experiencing homelessness and asking for money on the streets. In the three-block walk between the Metro exit and my office, it seemed I handed out every dollar in my wallet. As a young government employee with grad school debt, I quickly learned to offer a half-hearted smile and a “sorry” instead of cash. Or even worse, to walk extra fast and only look straight ahead. I told myself the rationale I’d heard other lefty do-gooders like myself use: “It’s so much better to give money to the nonprofits that serve these people than to give them money directly. That doesn’t actually solve the problem. We should focus on advocacy and social justice – the root causes.”
For years that seemed mostly to make sense. But it also felt like I was betraying a little part of myself every time I averted my eyes and pretended I didn’t hear the request for help – the plea to simply be noticed.
So, I decided to align my actions with my values.
What would happen if I simply said, “yes” to every request? What if I don’t worry that someone asking for help might be working for one of those panhandling rings you see in evening news exposés? What if I accept that it’s none of my business if the person chooses to use the money for alcohol, drugs or food? What if I believe it’s up to them to decide what they need most at that moment?
I would respond to anyone I passed on the street, in the train station, in the median off the freeway exit asking for money. I would give them cash. Not only that, I would stop. Look them in the eye. Offer a handshake, introduce myself and inquire, “What’s your name, sir/ma’am?” I’d offer the person the respect and dignity all of us need, want and deserve.
The small risk of potentially being taken advantage of wasn’t as great as the risk of missing an opportunity to connect meaningfully with another human being – to offer a smile, respect, attention. To show someone else they matter.
You know what? After a year of sharing money, I don’t feel any worse off. In fact, I feel quite enriched.
Many people are eager to engage me in conversation. I cried with a man in Dupont Circle who’d just learned his long-time friend committed suicide. Freddy, a man I met at Union Station, told me how he joined the Army after 9-11 to defend our country and ended up in wheelchair begging for food. I was told many times that I have a beautiful smile – and that made me smile even more.
I also met people who felt so much shame or embarrassment for needing to ask for help that, while I looked them in the eye and offered a handshake, they wouldn’t return my gaze, instead staring at the ground.
I don’t know how anyone spent the money I shared – other than Mike, who I met in downtown Baltimore on my way to the train station. He invited me into Subway to watch him buy a chicken sandwich. Maybe he thought I needed to know he really spent the money on food? We had a nice conversation after he ordered and waited for his sub. I left to catch my train when he sat down to eat.
Sometimes the biggest influence we can have is just setting an example – being the change we wish to see in the world. I have no idea if others watched me do this or, if they did, if it changed how they responded the next time someone standing on the street corner asked them for money. Call me naïve, but I know I made a difference in the day of those I met. And they absolutely made a difference in my day – my life.
All of us want to be seen and heard, respected. And yet when given the chance to alleviate some basic human suffering, most of us walk right by. We don’t see. We ignore asks for help. We judge. We don’t want to see. Because if we see, we must acknowledge their suffering. And then we must recognize our part in creating it – or consciously choose not to do anything about it.
There are still many days I fall short of living entirely aligned with my values. And paying attention – being conscious of those days, reflecting on the circumstances when I didn’t make the aligned choice or totally missed the opportunity to do so, helps me learn what gets in my way, so that I can be more intentional in the future.
I still believe in donating to nonprofit organizations, strengthening the social safety net and advocating fundamental systems change that addresses the causes of poverty and inequity. And for the person who just needs a meal today, a safe, warm place to sleep tonight, or a shower at the YMCA, investing in long-term change seems like a luxury. So, who says we can’t do both?
Where are you out of alignment? What can you adjust to live your values every day? What’s chiropractic for your soul?