I remember a time in my young adulthood when I pulled into the parking lot of a neighborhood grocery store. At the edge of the parking lot stood a youngish man, holding on to his bicycle, bags full of his belongings attached front and back. I heard him uttering the words of a panhandler to a customer parked near him: “Can you spare a few dollars?” or something similar. What did I do? My response was to do my best to avoid any contact with the man. I walked through the parking lot along the opposite edge, as far away from him as possible.
As I was engaged in this avoidance behavior, another car pulled into the lot and parked near where I was walking. A heavy-set man in a business suit climbed out, took one look across the lot at the bicycle man and immediately called out to him: “Hey, brother, how ya doin’?” The driver crossed over to the bicycle man’s side, shook hands, talked a bit and gave him some money. The whole thing was a friendly exchange, totally non-threatening, with nary a moment of awkwardness or discomfort to be viewed.
Such memories of me, not helping, stick in my mind. Like another time when my daughter and I were walking together toward the Memorial Art Gallery in her hometown. On our way, I walked right on by a man — sitting on the wall outside the Gallery, asking for money. My daughter, on the other hand, stopped and dug some money out of her purse for him.
What was the difference between my daughter and me? Between me and the man in the business suit? What was it about helping a stranger that they so comfortably responded to but that made me so hesitant?
I had a tiny breakthrough in my discomfort in an interaction with a homeless man one day in downtown Chicago. At that time, the people in Chicago who were homeless published a newspaper –StreetWise– that they sold on the street for $1.00. The newspaper was a bona fide product being offered to the public in exchange for a dollar. I had walked by many a StreetWise-seller in my visits to the city. But on this day, I had purposely put a one dollar bill in my coat pocket and was prepared to stop and buy an issue of StreetWise. What came next was this: the homeless man and I had eye contact, he asked me if I would buy a copy of the newspaper, I gave him the dollar and he gave me the newspaper, we spoke a few friendly words and wished each other a good day, and I went on my way.
Buying the newspaper was really not much of an event in the larger scheme of things, yet I felt like I had finally broken through some of the invisible barriers surrounding helping a stranger. At least I was no longer crossing to the other side of the “parking lot.” And my exchange with the homeless man had been respectful and pleasant — on both sides. I was buoyed by the brief experience.
I think what happened on that sidewalk in Chicago was that the man who was homeless became a real person to me — he had lost much of that sense of being an “other.” In the past, my hesitancy to have any contact with a street person or other down-and-out individual seemed fed by the strong sense of the person as an “other.” He was not me. Nor anybody like me. Certainly not someone I would hail as my “brother.” But now that “other” had become an acquaintance, someone to really “see,” to interact with, and with whom to exchange ordinary social behaviors.
These new perspectives on strangers who were, in one way or another, seeking help led to changes in my behavior in the years that have followed. In one incident with a street person, I almost felt like we had become friends. I saw him three times in one day, in three different locations in downtown Madison, and each time he asked me for money. The first time I declined — but more because I was in a hurry than anything else. The second time we recognized each other and had a laugh and I gave him money. Then I saw him once more in early evening as I was back downtown for an event. This time we really had a good laugh. In a way, we had created a narrative together, a shared experience that belonged strictly to the two of us. I felt a brief, but strong, connection to him by the third encounter that evening. And we shared some laughter. It was, in fact, a moment of intimacy.
I realize these are all examples of helping someone by giving him or her money. In a way, giving money is probably one of the least demanding ways of helping a stranger that I can think of. One can put some money in the hand, or hat, or violin case without any eye contact or human interaction. Obviously, helping a stranger can also take many other forms that require responsibilities and time commitments well beyond getting a dollar out of one’s pocket.
I was the stranger myself three years ago when I fell on the sidewalk in front of one of the engineering buildings on campus. I tripped, landed hard on my chin, and promptly started to bleed. That is, BLEED, as in substantial, dripping blood. I picked myself up and started toward the main door of the building. At the same time, a graduate student-type came up to the door from another direction. I looked up at him, my hand held under my chin to catch the dripping blood, and simply said, “Can you help me?” Without any hesitation he opened the door for me, ran ahead inside and unlocked a lab, got paper towels to staunch the flow, and then brought out a first aid kit. By this time, two other students had stopped to help. In total, they ministered to me for probably 20-30 minutes before I was ready to go on to the nearby hospital emergency room for stitches. I left them standing in the hallway, looking down at the bloody floor, figuring out who to call to get it cleaned up. Of course, I have no idea who these helpers were. Afterwards, I felt a huge emotional connection to them for their help, and considered writing some kind of note and taping it up on the wall outside that lab. Our time together had been an intense moment of intimacy.
We in occupational therapy belong to a helping profession. In a way, every time we begin seeing a new patient or client we are commencing to help a stranger. We, too, have to fight against cultural forces that lead to our thinking of the stranger as an “other” or one of “them.” Our concept of client-centered care has been proposed, at least partly, as a practice approach to minimize the “us” and “them” way of thinking.
In the world of occupational therapy practice, then, helping generates a strong connection with a stranger — a form of intimacy So hello, stranger. Lets work on this together and help one another forge these moments of intimacy into a meaningful and purposeful journey of healing and future participation in our everyday social worlds.