“If you never see a homeless person or a trailer park, it’s easier to forget they exist.” To me, this idea seemed ludicrous. In Denver, I see people holding signs, begging for money and food at every other corner. But two years ago, I was participating in “Poverty Day” for Leadership Denver. We split into groups and each group took a tour of a shelter. For lunch, we were divided into the “have’s” and the “have not’s.” At one point early on in the day, one of my classmates turned to me and said, “I never think about shelters or homelessness or anything of the sort. It’s just not part of my life.” He works for a commercial real estate firm that has a private jet to transport its employees around the country.
I was reminded of that conversation when I read an article in The Washington Post last week: “How can you tell if someone is kind? Ask how rich they are.” While the article points out that a study indicated that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy Zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities, the article was a reminder that people can change and there is hope. Sometimes, all we have to do is remind our friends and colleagues to pay more attention – to the waitress, the person in the crosswalk, the cleaning staff in the corridor of the conference center. A friend who was recently shopping with me pointed out that I was a woman on a mission: I went into a store, got what I needed and quickly walked out. I made little eye contact with anyone. I wasn’t trying to be rude; I was just being efficient. But my “efficiency” meant that I missed out on seeing a 6-year old tell a funny joke to customers waiting in line behind me. (Apparently, it was the highlight of everyone’s time in the store!)
Today, I treated myself to a mocha at Starbucks. When I stepped up to the cash register, I said hello and asked how the woman was doing before I provided my order. We exchanged a few pleasantries and realized that we were neighbors. Having just moved to the area, I was delighted to meet someone else from my neighborhood. And I would have missed that opportunity had I been my usual “efficient” self.
So I challenge all of us to widen our lens, be more present, and to simply make eye contact with those around you. The givers and takers may not be who we thought they were.