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Written by Anna Cox  Photos by Sam Smotherman

I met a man on Sunday morning. He wasn’t particularly handsome or interesting but my time with him continues to niggle in the back of my head. He told me about being a veteran, about agent orange, and shared that his mother had a terrible accident involving missing lung lining, a brick wall and a terrific sneeze.  He spun story on top of story, one bleeding into and borrowing on the last. He was hard to follow and it seemed as though whiskey permeated every ounce of air around him. He cried crocodile tears into his coffee cup while spinning his stories and fell out of his chair while he was eating. He was diabetic and very conscious of what he ate. He spoke with an eastern Kentucky accent, fidgeting with his hands that shook the entire time. He seemed almost child-like when he spoke of his momma and how she would kill him if she saw him looking unkept. He told me about getting lost looking for the bus and how the benches were the best place to bed down at night  He was a dirty, dirty liar but I liked him anyway. My friend bought him breakfast and patiently helped him pick food out while the wait staff fluttered about them. He made them incredibly nervous, and although I understood why, I felt sad for him anyway.

I cannot pretend to understand homelessness or being hungry. I won’t even begin to try to decipher why he ended up on the streets or what was truth out of everything he told me because it doesn’t really matter. What bothered me the most was that he had been conditioned to lie to gain sympathy to ultimately get what he wanted. In this instance, he wanted breakfast and a large cup of coffee. When he said the phrase, “I am not telling you this so you will feel bad…” but that, in fact, was exactly what he was hoping we would feel. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not here to debate homelessness or to negotiate sticky social topics. I am here to point out that he and I are not all that different. I have been taught to be sneakier with my lies, whereas he tells his boldly because that is exactly what is expected of him. He is homeless, therefore he is drunk or will drink before the day is out and everything out of his mouth is a lie crafted to gain sympathy. Don’t shake your head at my words, you know, deep down, you believe the sentence I just typed. I know your type, because I am like you. I skeptically look at the young woman on the side of the road and wonder if she actually has the five kids she claims to have waiting on her back home. I ask myself as I drive past and read her sign why she couldn’t get a job down the road at the restaurant I just left. Don’t pretend you don’t think these things also because most of us do, even if we are generous people.  Most of us would feed someone hungry. Most of us wouldn’t ignore a bald plea to ease a physical ache. Most of us are good humans, but most of us are also good liars.

The only difference between the man on Sunday and me is that he turned right at hardship where I turned left. He is only one step removed from me, and in effect, you.  He is dressed down and wearing his physical needs on the outside. I have learned to hide mine in plain sight.  That morning, once his belly was full, he wanted to talk. He wanted to be heard by a captive audience. He wanted to impart a small piece of himself to us even if it wasn’t the truth. We can all understand that. We understand wanting to belong to something, even if that something is a Sunday brunch with two strangers. My friend and I pretended to not be uncomfortable while he talked with us, but we were. Both of us wanted to meet his needs if we could, but we also understood that he was telling lie after lie. It is hard to find the line between between sympathy and naivety. Even though my friend and I were basically strangers, we have a similar world view. Simply stated, to give without strings and to give without the hope of reciprocation. But even as I type that it feels hollow. The small, dark part of my heart says that I am generous because it makes me feel good. If I lead with that thought, my giving is ultimately selfish and motive driven.

What if we strip the generosity down to its base instinct?  A base instinct that most people have built in to their psyche. The instinct to care about what happens to those we care about the most. If I look at that man like he is one of my own, then my caring and meeting needs isn’t one of selfishness, it is a pure act of love. He is me and he is you.

My resolution this year is simple. It is that my heart and head will come together to understand that there can be love even if there are lies between strangers. My motivation is one of caring for my circle. I am calling for an overhaul in my own life and heart. I am calling for a community chest born of pure love. I am calling for a giving that will strip down our wants and needs to perfect unrequited giving. We need to give ourselves to the idea that there is no us and them. That there is just us, and in that all encompassing circle there is a freeness of love that gives, not until it hurts, but because someone else is hurting and you, simply stated, are in the position to change that fact.

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Anna Cox