I saw a heartbreaking scene from my window the other night. There was a man, neatly dressed in a red T shirt and jeans, digging into the large rubbish bin in front of the bakery across the road, carefully removing the rubbish and picking out whole loaves of bread, which looked still good to eat, and putting them inside his bag. When the bag was filled to the brim, he then proceeded to put back the rubbish into the bin, and then went on his way, disappearing into the darkness of the night. While he was filling his bag, two men walked by and one of them stopped to look more closely at what he was doing, then walked away without a word. I was struck by the un-empathic reactions of the two passersby, but most affected by the visual impact of the man so carefully separating the rubbish from the perfectly good bread, then putting the rubbish back in the bin after he had finished. He did not just leave the rubbish outside the bin. He did not create a mess. He was respectful of the environment, despite his desperate need. The noisy drunken weekend revelers with enough money to intoxicate themselves silly, by contrast, never fail to create a great deal of mess in the streets, usually leaving behind broken bottles, vomit, cigarette boxes and various assorted litter.
Then, this thought sprang to mind: I understand there may be health regulations controlling the disposal of leftover foodstuff not sold at the end of the day, but why not put the perfectly good bread into separate bags, instead of throwing it all in together with the rubbish? This would help keep the food cleaner, so that homeless and hungry people like the man in the red T shirt can pick out the good things from the bad, with more dignity and also less chance of food poisoning. All it takes is just a little more thought. And just a teeny bit more effort. It won’t cost the bakery anything, it won’t break the law either, but it would help people like that man who may need to scavenge for food.
(Another sad irony in this image is the Lotto sign behind the man. A symbol rich in associations, which include instant wealth and chance.)
I posted a comment on my Facebook about my experience, and the sadness I felt witnessing this scene. The responses I received from different friends were reflections of their own mental states and perceptions. More irony – the one religious man in the group to respond, a Christian pastor, dished out the least sympathetic words. His first and immediate words were: “That is unbelievable. I thought Australia was a caring place?” This is the man who had suffered unpleasant experiences while in Australia, and his own bitterness shot to the fore like a toxic spring at the very first instance and opportunity. There was no containment at all, it was an honest and real reaction, and I will not judge him too harshly, but it was nevertheless very telling of his mental state. And propensity for empathy. A friend in the USA, an Aspie girl living with many different comorbid and painful disabilities and known by many as a fiercely contrary radical woman with a vile temper, reacted with much more compassion than the Christian pastor. She did sympathise but also mentioned that there may be health regulations preventing the distribution of leftovers. And, of course, two other girlfriends of less radical but more emotional and caring dispositions responded with an outpouring of sympathetic grief, but added in their various analyses about the ills of modern society. The pastor friend subsequently did try to redeem himself somewhat, but we all know that our first, unguarded reactions are often our truest, and the best reflections of our innermost attitudes and moralities.
Another example of how our experiences shape our prejudices and responses. Of the four who responded, only two have any real idea of what it means to be poor, and going without because one just has no money. I grew up more privileged than many, but I know that feeling of desperate poverty firsthand now. I do admit, many a time, I too have thought about scavenging – picking up things others have discarded, and yes, even FOOD, because I have run out of money to buy and have to go hungry for the next few days until my next stipend is deposited into my bank account. What separates me from the man in the red T-shirt? Just three simple thin veils of separation: my wonderful friends to whom I can easily turn should I be truly starving, my own pride that prevents me from being discovered with my hand in the bin, and my fear of smelly rubbish (damn the hypersensitivity). Nothing more. I could well be him.
A sobering thought. No?