Monday, December 15, 2008

Lessons from a Morning at a Soup Kitchen

Yesterday I served breakfast/brunch at St. Vincent de Paul's soup kitchen. It wasn't my first time serving, and my shift wasn't even marked by any dramatic events (like the time a father tried choking his baby, or the time a homeless guy started yelling hateful anti-Semitic comments at our Jewish group of volunteers); however, I realized something profound on this relatively peaceful day at the shelter: Very few people choose whom they want to be, while most allow their identify to be formed for them, by their circumstances.

Some of the homeless folks I've served have addressed us volunteers by name (we wear name tags), thanking us for giving our time to help them, even blessing us and asking the name of our organization so they can remember our generosity. Perhaps a few of these non-despondent food recipients will use their amiability and confidence to redefine themselves the way one woman did; I volunteered alongside her a few months ago ("Hey, it's my turn to give back now," she explained). But the majority of the recipients seem despondent, hanging their heads, looking surprised when a volunteer calls them "Sir" or "Miss," and smiling awkwardly at friendly greetings and wishes. The most downtrodden can't even muster a "thank you," because that would define them as a civilized member of society, and they don't feel part of anything, apparently. The capacity to say "thank you," I've noticed, is very indicative of one's self-esteem...and not just at the soup kitchen.

Even among the volunteers, I've met those who are serving NOT as an act of choosing whom they want to be, but rather, as a the fulfillment of an obligation imposed by others. Some people I've met give their time because their kids need "credit" for a school program, and so both parent and child serve to fulfill an obligation. Others volunteer because someone else dragged them along so they wouldn't feel awkward as they satisfied their curiosity about homeless people. And I've met some, among the many Jewish volunteers, who do this because "I really need to do a mitzvah--it's been a while." (A "mitzvah" is a commandment from God that one should fulfill.) In short, despite the fact that goodness is accomplished in any case, regardless of the motives of the do-gooder, the goodness itself does not always define the do-gooder.

When another volunteer asked me why I serve there, I answered, "Because they have so little, and I have so much. It's only fair." It's justice--or as we say in Hebrew, tzedek, a balancing of inequities in an attempt to foster peace. I choose to define myself as a do-gooder for the sake of establishing peace, one minuscule step at a time. Now, you might say, "But actually, your circumstances, as a well-off person, have defined you as a giver. Had you been born on the street, you wouldn't have chosen whom you want to be, as you say, so easily." And you may be right. As a street person, I may not have been the type to harness my circumstances and steer my way to personal happiness and a life of helping others. I may never know (I HOPE I never know!) whether I am that type. Very few struggling people are that tough and optimistic. But I think it's important that I, and those reading this blog, realize that ANYONE could be homeless--it's a state, not an identity. Choosing whom I want to be, even without the luxury of a computer at my fingertips, a full refrigerator in the other room, and a warm house on a rainy day, is not about coping with circumstances; it's about creating new circumstances.

No matter whom we choose to be, though, if goodness results, that's what really matters, isn't it? It's all good, as my kids say. Kol tov! It's all good.