This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown. Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by. Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement. Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us. This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.
In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).” Being rejected again and again hurts. Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.
Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12) For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred. For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby. No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.
Our actions have a cyclical affect. Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others. Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others. Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us. Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect. Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day. Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day. However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.
It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse. The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being. However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted. This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend. Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.
We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet. But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet. We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us. We love because He loves us. The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him. During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day. Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective. Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith. But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.
This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs. We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways. While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store. I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16). Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.
Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it. If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle. Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions. We are called to be cycle breakers! Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed. Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.
*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.
*Image via Wikimedia Commons