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One person at a time



As published in Elephant Journal 8/5/17


I see a young woman punished by a mind that differs from my own pushing a shopping cart through the dregs of society.

The aisles of humanity staggered randomly like blockades of sheeple that spite or ignore or pretend she does not even exist.

She winds carefully through the labyrinth. A test of the gods. A test of her worthiness that she believes she failed long ago.

I wonder: What test? What god would be so cruel to allow this woman, who carries the spark of the divine itself within her breast, to live like this? Why threaten to extinguish the gift of that spark?

I step in front of this woman, only occasionally glancing behind, and part the cascade of ignorance like Moses in a sea of flesh so she can make her way to the hovel that is her home.

I see a man on a corner with a worn sign that says “will work for food” and I know, without a doubt, that he has neither worked nor eaten in far too long. I watch the constant flow of people pass by like a river of wealth that is just beyond his reach while he slowly dies from dehydration.

I wonder: Why should he work for what the planet gives freely? Why should he be reduced to begging for that which comes naturally?

I step into the closest convenience store, a place convenient only to those with means, and spend what little is left on my debit card to ensure that he will not go another day without that which is his right, and I bring it to him with one request—that if he knows another who has not eaten, he share it. He looks at me and offers a portion, and I gently refuse because I have a job.

I see an old man struggling to carry his meager supplies to his humble home. He staggers under the weight of the few small bags that are his sole source of sustenance for the next month. His “retirement” is barely enough to pay for the two rooms in an ancient building that could, at any time, be condemned and leave him homeless.

I cross the street, add my own bags to his, and carry them all to the crumbling facade which represents the dreams of his youth. Without a word, I leave all the bags, including my own, at his door and walk away in silence as he speaks the only word we shared in those six blocks, “Why?”

I wonder: Where did he work so hard that I can see the memories of his past etched deeply into his face? Why did the system he paid into for so long leave him with not so much as cab fare to transfer a true month’s worth of food? Why would my actions, which seem so natural to me, leave him questioning my motives?

When I return home, I see myself in the mirror: this man that proclaims love, who shares it freely with the hungry, who widens the aisle with his imposing figure and intimidates the sheeple with a glance so the meek can pass, who carries the bags for those who are too weak to carry them, and leaves them with more than they started with—where would he be if not for the love and care of the one person who first offered the very same compassion that he feels for others: his Self.

I see their faces in my reflection. I feel their pain, know their suffering, and, in fact, share it.

Where would I be? Exactly where I am now—with them.

I quietly acknowledge my gratitude to a universe that gave me the gift of this vision and know that I am home.

If you want to change the world, begin with yourself, and then carry that change into the world one person at a time.




Author: J.M. Greff
Image: Pixabay/quinntheislander
Editor: Travis May


  1. Oh dear god, I’m sobbing. I have gone through life not looking at people because it is too painful. It has only been in the last five years that I occasionally find people I can look in the eye because their pain does not drive its way to my core. I see here you are a kindred spirit. A kindred spirit with the courage and strength to act. The Creator has gifted you with pain and experience so you may teach others how to see the people on the frayed fringe of our society. At least that is the story I tell myself and the story I consider with gratitude you and for people like you.

    • Though this story is a combination of experiences it is how I live, M. It’s never easy, which is why I am most often found far from heavily populated areas, but it is the price for retaining my humanity in a way. Turning away from those in need is like turning away from myself.

  2. This brought on so many emotions. I’ve worked with the homeless, most of them addicts, for about 5 years. The stigma that comes with the homeless is heartbreaking. I’ve run many addiction groups and have talked to them about the fact that in their active use, whatever the drug of choice was, they were all just one little step away from being homeless themselves. I try to teach them that talking to a homeless person won’t kill them. I talk to my clients about sympathy and empathy. There is hope for everyone, (I’ve mentioned before having Hope tattooed on my wrist) no matter the situation. This is so beautifully written. It’s so eye-opening. If you don’t mind, I’m going to print this and use this in my groups. I wish I could hug you for writing this!

    • I would be honored, Gretchen. Truly.

      It feels like a lifetime ago, and just yesterday, that I was homeless myself. I lived eleven months on the floor of an abandoned house in Austin, TX and another ten in a beat up camper van I bought while I got my life back together. I still own the van. I keep it as a reminder of those times and to keep hope always burning. It provides happy times these days (when it isn’t broke down;)

      I’d love to tell you I never gave up hope during that time, that I never gave into despair, but that would be a lie. So tell them from me it’s far more destructive and difficult than they can imagine and that I consider myself very fortunate for getting through it alive.

  3. You really seem like an amazing human being. Even though life took you down a shitty path at one point, you didn’t give up. And from the beautiful, deep things you’ve written, it’s very clear you have so much love to share with some very lucky woman. Whoever she is, hopefully she will fully understand what a treasure she has in you. 💜

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