If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you’ll end up doing nothing for nobody.
These words appear at the end of a short video currently doing the rounds on Facebook. In it, a young homeless man in a ripped t-shirt stands on a cold Manhattan street, holding a cardboard plank with a handwritten message and a cup for donations. He is shivering and eventually he gets so cold that he climbs into a black rubbish bag and lies on the pavement. For two hours he stayed in this one spot, clearly suffering in the cold, as people walked around him. Eventually a man approached him, removed his jacket and gave it to the boy. This guy turns out to be homeless himself. He stayed with the boy, talking reassuringly. His words along the lines of “I’m homeless too and we homeless, we got to help each other”, show where the man’s empathy stemmed from. The boy’s brothers then appear and explain that their brother is not actually homeless, they staged and filmed the situation as a social experiment. Gratefully they give the homeless guy a $500 reward, eliciting a very emotional response.
What I noticed when I watched this video, is that most people did not even appear to notice the young boy lying on the pavement, everyone walking around him without seeming to even realise he was there. But once the homeless guy stopped and started to engage with the boy, others also stopped, or slowed down to notice. So while we tend to ignore things which are in front of us, once someone takes the lead, we also tend to follow by example.
Departing the highly efficient, well resourced, indulgent world of Europe and landing 15 hours later in the chaotic, impoverished and dishevelled world of Cambodia requires some conscious mental readjustment. The macro-economy of high speed trains, cosmopolitan cities, high-end and expensive designer produce on display at every turn, has exited my life. In it’s place I am confronted with the micro-economy of motorbikes, overcrowded and run-down vehicles, rule-free traffic pandemonium and almost every pedestrian some sort of street vendor of homemade produce, or scavenger collecting recyclable rubbish. This was my third time arriving in Phnom Penh from overseas and the first time that it felt completely un-alien, almost normal except for the rich-to-poor-world absurdity which will take me a few days to shake.
At lunch today I reacquainted myself with some of the stories my friend always shares, of lives in a landless Cham community of fisherpeople who she works with via a small NGO. Leaking fishing boats patched with polystyrene or wads of material, an elderly disabled man who uses his homemade wheelbarrow as a walking frame at the same time as it serves him in his livelihood of walking the streets collecting recyclable rubbish. A very difficult and unstable woman whose children mostly fend for themselves because there are no protective systems in place for vulnerable children. Her 17yo daughter has been missing for almost three years, probably trafficked and possibly done so via her own mother’s arrangement for financial gain. Her five year old requires regular hospital attendance due to a genetic disease and he is usually escorted to his appointments by his 10 year old sister. The stories of this woman have frequently frustrated and upset me. Today I discovered that black crows surround her every night as she lies in bed, haunting her sleep. As a child she witnessed her father murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Her brother was held prisoner in a small cage on the outskirts of her village. Oneday she secreted a small amount of food to him. He was caught with unauthorised food and she was forced to watch his murder. These are all relatively “everyday” stories for Cambodians of my generation and older. It can seem futile to want to do anything to help. Yet there are many people here, most of them Cambodian, who do help, often making significant personal sacrifices to do so.
I’ve often been told that it’s too difficult to help under such circumstances, because it’s a bottomless pit and to help one person only opens the door for others to want your help. It is a bottomless pit, that is true. But if you can recognise when to tell both yourself, and others, the important word “no” then it is not too difficult to help. It is okay to say no – we are all only human, with individual limitations. But also with individual capacities to make a difference. Sometimes, in an environment such as Cambodia, a “no” can result in suffering and even death. But the times when you say “yes”, are the times of monumental value to another human being. Shying away from helping anyone because you can’t help everyone is never the right answer.
A few months ago Scott Neeson shared a story on his Facebook page, about a grandmother collecting garbage for a living, with her three year old grandson traveling in her wheelbarrow every night. This was the only way she had to care for her grandson, who was malnourished and sick from the garbage surrounding him, and whose parents had abandoned him. Neeson was tempted, as he drove past them, to keep driving, but he told himself to stop because he could, and therefore he should. Half an hour later grandmother and grandson were connected to Neeson’s NGO, Cambodian Children’s Fund, who can offer her child care and an alternative occupation from garbage collection. All because someone who did not have to stop, but could stop, decided to stop. More recently Neeson made the following challenge to his followers, a challenge I intend to meet:
So, with over 100,000 of us on this page, can we make a commitment to help just one elderly person in the next week? It need be as small as helping them cross a busy street or get onto transport. If you are in with me on this, then share with friends and see if they will also make an effort this week.
If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. However before you say “I can’t do this because…” stop for a moment and ask yourself whether the real reason is that “I don’t especially care…”.
Or maybe you think “what do I get out of helping them?”.
The answer is that you make this a better world.
If all of us stopped, even once, when we could, imagine the ripple effect that this could have on the world we live in? The homeless man approaching the hypothermic boy in Manhattan caused people who would otherwise have walked on by, to stop and think. Neeson and other similar philanthropists share their stories on social media which reinforce to me, that I must stop whenever I can. Maybe this blog will encourage even one person, to stop next time they can. All of us – even the most privileged – deserve to live in a world where people stop.