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- Jonathan Lockwood Huie (jlh @sail7.com)

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Monday, December 31, 2012

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Today In My World - Panhandler

As with all the "Today In My World" exercises, There are no "right" answers to the questions in today's exercise. The purpose of "Today In My World" is self-inquiry.

Today, as you approach the intersection where the unkempt man or woman stands holding a cardboard sign saying something like, "Hungry - Need Food," don't just look away awkwardly and drive past. Today, pull to the side, hand them a couple of dollars, look straight at them, and wish them a wonderful new year.

As you drive away, look deeply at how you are feeling. Do you feel you did a good deed, or do you feel you enabled irresponsibility and perhaps drug or alcohol addiction? Do you feel that the person you just helped has failed themself, or that society has failed them? Do you feel generosity? Compassion? Disgust? Love? Hate? Anger? Indifference?

Were you able to consider the person you donated to as an individual, or did you see them as part of an undifferentiated group? Intellectually, you know that some, but not all, panhandlers are mentally ill. Some, but not all, are homeless. Honest. Manipulative. Alcoholic. Drug addicts. Devoted parents of small children. Disabled veterans. But emotionally do you group all panhandlers together? And if so, into what group?

Do the feelings that you actually have differ from the feelings that you believe you "should" have? If so, what are the two kinds of feelings? When and where did you get the attitudes you actually hold? What authority figures taught you the feelings you "ought to" have? Church? Parents? Other? Does the difference between your actual feelings and your "ought to" feelings cause you discomfort?

The "Today In My World - Panhandler" exercise is designed to point out how hard it is to avoid treating all members of an unfamiliar group as if they were all the same. If a member of your extended family has ever been a panhandler, you probably have an easier time of identifying with individuals begging on the street. Otherwise, it is all to easy to generalize.

Now consider "groups" of people around the world. One by one, consider religions and ethnicities - especially those to which you have no personal connection. Are you able to remember that each religion or ethnicity is composed of huge numbers of unique individuals? Our media makes the problem much harder by using a group name to refer to a few political leaders. A news program will very commonly say "Iran did this," or "North Korea threatened that," when they really are describing what the top political leaders are doing. Are we able to remember that there are many millions who either disagree with the actions of the political leaders who dominate their countries, or who are just trying to keep their families fed?

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