But it was 12:45 in the afternoon. I was late to lunch, and I didn’t have the time.
I’ve spent much of the past year-and-a-half in my own personal cocoon. After graduating from college in 2017, I felt called, as an aspiring physician-writer, to benefit patients and society through medical care, research, and writings like the one you are reading at this very moment. And from the moment I return to Palo Alto I endeavored to live that vision out—writing research papers, essays, and blog posts at a near-maniacal pace. The result was, in all certainty, a fruitful and productive eighteen months.
But did any of it matter? Looking back on this phase of laser-like focus, I find two things remarkable. First, the sheer productivity which has emerged in such a short period of time. And second, the shaky feeling that despite all this productivity, my time has been wasted. The feeling that, in pursuing my calling with such a singular energy, I have somehow missed out on a deeper human calling.
The second idea is difficult to palate, and so it usually goes ignored. Indeed, conscious ignorance is what kept me from approaching the man on the steps: I had places to go, a life to live, no time to waste. I walked past him, texting two strangers who were sitting in a nearby Japanese restaurant and wondering where I was.
It was a new environment for me: an east coast city, host to one of those institutions where I was fortunate enough to interview for medical school. I was in the midst of a couch-surfing tour of the country—seeing new cities, old friends, and an inordinate number of well-dressed twenty-somethings during my eight-plus weeks of interview season. The rhythmic focus of my previous life now culminated in a sort of existential arrythmia, as I encountered new lifestyles and people across the nation. Two such people were waiting for me, their miso soups getting cold, as I walked hurriedly past the city hall to the Japanese restaurant. And then my cocoon burst.
“Hey man! Um—excuse me,” I heard from behind. I turned to find a fifty-something man with humble eyes and deep rivets in his face. My own eyes had barely risen from my phone before he had taken my hand. “I’m just looking for some food, for my wife and I. You think you could help me out?”
The man had complicated my ignorance with one simple request. After months spent working towards my goals, actualizing my desires, I was suddenly thrust into the actual life of another human being. I was 3,000-odd miles from home, in a strange and chilly city, speaking with a man quite unlike myself. Somewhere nearby, there were people quite like myself indeed, but they eating mushroom dumpling appetizers. As I processed this man’s request, the key tension arose. My priorities and schedules lay on the one hand: a friend of mine had connected me with two people who had agreed to show me around the city, and I didn’t want to waste their time. On the other hand, a peculiar and strange feeling—the idea that my personal desires were mere shadows of a deeper human duty—was lodging in my throat.
All this happened in an instant. The man let go of my hand, his warm smile frozen and awaiting my answer. “My name’s Jeremiah,” he continued, “I’m fifty-five years old. That over there”—he motioned towards a woman on the other side of the street—“is my wife. She’s twenty-eight. We’ve got no place to stay; everything we’ve got is in those bags.” He turned towards the double doors—which seemed much more like a wall now—and then back to me. “You think you could help us out with some food?”
Every habit, rhythm, and disposition of my past eighteen months would have had me walk right past the man. In pursuit of academic and personal aspirations, I had learned to view my life, my time, like my money. And like many in our modern culture, I kept tight pocketbooks.
I glanced upwards, every selfish fiber of my being pointing towards that hip Japanese restaurant. But then something strange happened. My eyes rose to meet those of the man before me—russet-brown, yet perfectly transparent. This man held no armies between himself and the world, no doors to shut another person out. From his eyes I shifted to his smile. The shape of it was less like a crescent moon and more like an inverted rainbow. There was a persistent, inherent joy to the man, as if his obvious hunger and plight were of no burden to him. They must have been, I knew; but his patience, his humility—his joy!—seemed the perfect antithesis to the shaky feeling lodged in my throat.
I thought I had known the man before we had even spoken. Walking by, I saw him as a concept—a type, perhaps—and was content with that. I was content with the preconceptions one has when imagining a homeless person. But looking into his eyes, hearing his voice, reading the lines of his face, I was confronted with a tremendous fact: this was not a concept. This was a human being standing in front of me.
I certainly can’t speak authoritatively, but I think this fact is forgotten in Silicon Valley as often as it is proclaimed. For many people—myself included—poverty and homelessness are concepts, ideas. At best, they are causes to address through money and legislation. This is not to discredit the countless individuals who devote meaningful time and effort to impoverished and homeless people; but we recognize that these people are in the minority. I, myself, am not among them as often as I would like.
All this despite a close proximity to, and growing epidemic of, poverty and homelessness in the Bay Area. We need not repeat the well-worn statistics which reveal, again and again, the growing issue before us. While these numbers are real, my concern is even more concrete. It is the understanding that these issues—with all their baggage, all their associated sufferings—are themselves understood, first and foremost, through human eyes.
And so I looked into Jeremiah’s. His young wife began crossing the street. The moment before me, the decision to help this man or continue with my day, was so profoundly simple that it was almost humorous. I was not here to end global poverty; I was not called upon to drop everything and devote all my waking moments to the poor. But I was here, and in a sense, I was called. Called like I had been called countless times before—called like all those instances in which I walked past a homeless man or woman on the street, averting my eyes as if I had banished them from my narrow and happy world. Now what was different about this moment?
It must have been his eyes. In all those other moments—moments where I was capable of ignoring the human beings seeking my assistance—I hadn’t bothered to looked into the eyes of the people before me. Concepts do not have eyes, so where would I have looked? But Jeremiah was not a concept; no one is. Just as the new city had forced me to pay attention to my surroundings—the chilling wind, the historic architecture, the unflattering buses—this new person forced me to recognize his humanity.
“Yeah man!” I blurted out, looking back at a Starbucks two-hundred feet behind us. “How about I get you something in there?”
Jeremiah looked at me with a peculiar blend of gratitude and surprise. His city, despite its flourishing and prestigious university, was packed tightly with socioeconomic inequality. Within just a few city blocks, the average life expectancy could rise or fall by ten to fifteen years. Instead of dissolving such inequality, this proximity seemed only to highlight the contrast. Jeremiah had sought help from countless passers-by, but rarely received more than a fleeting glance. He had begun to think he was invisible. Indeed, it had barely occurred to him that someone could take the time to simply recognize his need—his humanity. It seemed unthinkable that a passing stranger would look him in the eyes.
As Jeremiah told me this, I tried to envision his developing perception of me. Perhaps he thought I was different than those passers-by—that I had no biases, no prejudices. Perhaps he did not doubt my heart.
But he should have. Because I was just like every other person who had ever ignored him. Indeed, had the image of Jeremiah staring up at those imposing doors not struck me in such an odd way, I might have passed him before he had ever seen me. I would have gone to my comfortable lunch; discussed my life goals with high-achieving doctors the next day; and flown home feeling pretty good about myself. I would have continued as an unknowing participant in the social structures which brought people like me to interview at fancy medical schools, and left people like Jeremiah to seek help on the street. And I would not have thought twice.
Let me be clear: there were no moral shortcomings in the mere fact of my aspirations. To heal, to discover, to write—all these were important and worthwhile endeavors. But there was something slightly ironic in the fact that I, an aspiring servant of the sick, had received some of the most tremendous social and educational resources one could think of. And in entering a profession centered on the most unifying human experiences—illness and death—I had striven to separate myself from the pack, demonstrating my brilliance and aptitude through test scores and publications. Had I entered the insular world of academic and professional success, only to form a wall which would separate me from people like Jeremiah? With my resources and priorities, was it still possible to empathize with his burdens? Could I see him as more than a cause?
As I have grown older, I have become more acutely aware of my privileges. I have seen not only their existence, but the ways in which they separate me from other people. I see the ways in which my social and educational resources—or rather, my hoarding of them—propagate inequality. But I am also deeply, tremendously grateful for those resources. The education, the comforts, the safe and empowering community—all these have played a key role in the self-giving aspirations of my mind and heart. But how do I think about these privileges while others suffer from lack?
Here, I teeter on a duality of thought not unlike that which I felt while watching Jeremiah take on those big, imposing doors. Just as I looked at Jeremiah, watching my perceptions of the man switch from concept to concrete, I realize now that my humility is perhaps too philosophical. What I need is not shame; what I need is the drive, the integrity, the love, to see beyond the barriers of my narrow world.
When I step into this duality—being humbled but not paralyzed by my background—my mind settles into a sense of clarity. I cannot throw money at a charitable cause, or serve a couple meals at a homeless shelter, and say that I have lived beyond my cocoon. I must live out my values in ways that are relevant to myself, and to real human beings. Persistent poverty—whether in the Bay Area or elsewhere—is one of the most relevant realities there is. But if I have any true heart for the poor, my hands and feet must follow suit. And now, perhaps, we see the concrete realities which contextualize love-driven service. They are evident in the words themselves: hearts, hands, feet, eyes. These physical entities are not all there is to caring for the poor; but they are good beginnings. In them lies the realization that the homeless, the impoverished, the whoever, are tangible human beings, just like us.
By the time Jeremiah and his wife had finished picking out food at Starbucks, my bill had run well upwards of my comfort zone. One panini had turned to two, to five, and to a couple bananas as well. For a moment, my uncertainty returned—were they taking advantage of me? But my discomfort dissolved when I realized its origin: the number on the cash register, slowly but steadily increasing. It was a decent number for someone making “research assistant” money, but that’s all it was: a number. My focus had turned from a human being to a concept—an idea. Had that focus never switched back, I might have darted off to the Japanese restaurant after all. So why did I not? What made me stay in this uncomfortable moment, instead of running towards my mushroom dumpling cocoon?
“Hey man,” a voice said softly behind me. It was Jeremiah, his dark-brown eyes recapturing mine. “Thank you for all of this. My wife and I have been real hungry for a while, and we’re going to feel a lot better now. Thank you.”
The tensions, the self-serving rhythms, were still lodged somewhere deep in my heart. But so too was the image of this kind and humble man. I placed my hand on his shoulder and let out a smile, existing outside myself for a brief moment. I let the image sink in; it shined through like a searchlight, revealing my selfishness, even my aspirations, as nothing more than cheap shadows of what really mattered. I gazed curiously and wondrously at this image, paid the bill, and hurried off to lunch.
Author's Note: The name and identifying details of "Jeremiah" have been removed or altered to protect his privacy.