liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
A grim October day in 2001. I was a new PhD student, and the world was reeling from the World Trade Centre attack and its fallout. I travelled from Dundee to Glasgow for Shabbat Shuva, the sabbath of repentance which falls between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur. The trip took most of the day; it was dark and rainy when I got to the stop where I would catch a bus from Dundee station back to my flat. The Saturday night crowd were just starting to be raucous.

I was feeling tired from the travelling, and reflective after a really moving service. As I waited, thinking about repentance and my good spiritual intentions, a woman approached me in some distress. She said she really needed a place for the night, otherwise she would have to go into the shelter, and she was terrified, the night shelter was full of drug users and violent men.

The right response couldn't have been more obvious, especially not at this time of year. I could practically hear Isaiah 57 in my head: Is not this the fast I have chosen... sharing your food with the hungry, and bringing the homeless into your home? I could almost see myself inviting her to come back with me, giving her a shower and some clothes in a better state than hers and a hot meal and making up a bed for her. I knew that if I turned her down it would make a mockery of my participation in this religious season.

In the end, though, I couldn't do it. I was too afraid that, even if she wasn't a criminal herself, she was acting as a honeytrap for others. If I took her in, she might invite her confederates to come and steal my stuff (not that I owned much worth stealing, at that point in my life), or worse, smash up my little flat and make it uninhabitable, or even physically attack me. I knew my family and friends would never forgive me for doing something so ridiculously naive as to invite a total stranger into my house based on a sob-story. As vividly as I could imagine helping her, I could imagine myself calling my parents from hospital and having to confess to them that I'd been a complete idiot and got myself into trouble.

There was another fear, too: she might have been in a situation where she couldn't think beyond finding somewhere safe to sleep that night, but whatever circumstances in her life had led her to beg a stranger for shelter would probably still be there in the morning. Once I'd interacted with her, shared a meal with her, established a human connection, I could hardly turn her out again. I was afraid that she would end up living with me for weeks or months, that her problems would become my responsibility.

So I turned away from her with a mumbled "sorry". I don't seriously think she was sent as a religious test, though the incident, on that particular evening, very much had the form of one. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that God would mess up the life of another human being just to teach me a spiritual lesson. But I did learn a lesson, and a painful one: I don't really have the courage to take on a direct personal risk to do the right thing. I always have that in the back of my mind when I'm in the throes of this religious season; I might well repent, and sincerely intend to make a better job of my life next year, but it will never be quite wholehearted, I fear.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-11 04:47 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I think you had a real dilemma in 2001. I wonder whether it would have been possible to help the lady find a room in a B&B for the one night and pay for that yourself. I realise you were not rich at the time and maybe this was too much to pay.
I think in your shoes I should have done the same thing as you did.
I suppose the alternative was to give the lady a meal in a local cafe/pub, but then you would be again establishing a living link with her and it would be more difficult to walk away from the problem afterwards.
Of course you could have handed over a sum of cash to her for her to spend as [un]wisely as she wished. Opening your purse in public demonstrates just how rich you were.
I am not being helpful here. Sorry.
Southernwood.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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