In downtown Los Angeles, you learn not to look at people.
Part of it is because LA is extraordinarily impersonal. But a lot of it is because you could potentially make yourself a target.
LA natives know well that some strangers you encounter can be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. I have a family friend who accidentally made eye contact with gangsters; they apparently didn’t like the way he looked at them, and slashed his tires.
I myself can speak from personal experience. In high school, I ran into a homeless person who asked me for money for food, and I willingly obliged; however, as I handed over a $5 bill, I heard the man mutter, “Dumb bitch, I’m gonna get so fuckin high on this shit.” And last summer on my way to work, I made eye contact with a mentally ill homeless woman, who, disturbed by my looking at her, immediately began storming towards me, shrieking, “Why you looking at me? We’re gonna get you! We’re gonna get you!”
Experience has trained me and other Los Angeles residents to ignore others, especially if they are homeless. It’s not that we’re cold-hearted. It’s just that, while some of us might like to reach out to the poor on the street, the potential abuses and dangers you put yourself into force you to stay away. Many accept this as the harsh, unfortunate, and tragic reality. (Many people prefer instead to volunteer at or donate to poverty-relief organizations.)
That was the mentality I had when I was walking to work last week and approached a homeless man sitting on a curb. As he lifted his head to look at me, I instinctively darted my eyes away, pretended he wasn’t there, and walked farther away. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw that the man had lowered his head again, with a crestfallen and empty look. It was a look that said, “I’m worthless.”
At that moment, I had never felt more pathetic about myself.
It could be that if I had made eye contact with him, he might have chased after me in a frenzy or begged me for drug money. But it also could be that if I made eye contact with him — and merely nodded in acknowledgment — I could have reaffirmed that he is a person, that he does have worth, and that someone out there does care for him.
A lot of us — myself included — tend to ignore homeless people, sometimes out of convenience, a lot of times out of fear. Having their existence ignored probably does a lot to reduce the poor’s self-worth. However, we don’t have to give money or even spend a lot of time with the poor to help them regain their sense of human dignity. If we only look at them and nod and maybe say “hello” when we pass them by, we acknowledge their existence, and therefore reaffirm that they are indeed human beings, just like us. It is in small, random occasions like these that we can establish a connection in which we are equals.
Our world can be harsh, and it can lead us to harden our hearts out of necessity. But we as Catholics and Christians should remember that our mission is not to harden our hearts, but to open them. It doesn’t have to take any extraordinary effort. A simple look and a nod can make someone — especially someone who feels unloved and uncared for — feel like a person again.
I don’t know what happened to that homeless man I ran into last week. For now, I can only pray for him. And I can hope that someone, more courageous and with a better head and heart than I, ran into him, looked at him, and gave him a smile — from human to human.