The importance of increasing our compassion for the less fortunate

My holiday wish list turned into encouraging others.

By Marcy Rudins

Marcy RudinsThe week prior to Christmas, I was sitting around and received an email from my mom. The email was entitled, “Christmas Shopping” and the content included that if I wanted something for Christmas I should send it to her/extended family. For the first few moments, I felt overjoyed. Wow, I am so blessed and so content with my life. I realized my family cares about me and took the time to actually ask me what I wanted instead of getting me another one size too small sweater. These are the last moments in which I will be able to receive gifts without the expectation of going bigger or better when giving gifts. It may have been unreasonable, but it sure was how I felt. But as the minutes went on I soon began to realize something that was much greater than my capacity to handle. That I was just a college student, and that I really didn't deserve what I was given. The guilt overwhelmed me and the sadness took over. I closed all the tabs to various online stores and put my computer away. What made me feel entitled to something that I didn't even really deserve? I have my GED, most of my college is done, and I've never committed a crime — but that isn't what makes me a better person or what allows me to receive more than others.

As I walked to my first class of the day, I saw the homeless people within the community start to line up outside of the local seminary for the free lunch. I walked by a group and tried to just brush past to get to my class. But I was stuck with this image in my mind of a younger looking woman with her child — her young daughter. They both looked like they hadn't bathed in several days and their skin looked dry, like they had been outside for too long in the bitter cold. I stopped for a moment and had to catch my breath about what I had just seen — a younger woman, no older than me, and her daughter. What had I done to get what I have? The woman seemed pleasant, and the daughter was a bundle of joy, while I trudged to class. I felt like a female Scrooge darting to my next class, not taking the time to talk or just be with these people. Once again, I had to get to class.

I was the social media intern at the National Coalition for the Homeless for a couple months, and in that time learned about the issues greater than just homelessness. What I will take away from that internship the most is when one of the homeless men was talking to me and he said, “I don't remember who gave me money or who gave me change, but what I'll always remember is when someone stopped to talk to me.” This idea has always stuck with me, and even though I am still working on it, I believe that there is a lesson to be learned.  

Yes, I should have stopped to talk to that mother and daughter, instead of feeling like I had to go to class. Yes, we all have our moments of weakness or falling short. But what I have learned is that I'm not entitled to things. People don't deserve certain things over others. Could you honestly say to a homeless person why you deserve a home more than they do? I know I couldn't, and I'm sure most people can't. But we all deserve love, warmth, caring, compassion, empathy or a smile. It's not what the homeless man got that he remembered, but how he felt when someone took the time to talk to him or care for him. So in this season and in the future, take time to stop. Yes, stop. Find that one in-law that has been driving you up the wall this past holiday season to care for them. Smile at the homeless person you see every day when you walk to work. Or even take time to care and love yourself. Because in the end, we all deserve and desire to feel loved.

A Response from the Socioeconomic Status Office

Hi Marcy, 

Thank you for your sharing your recent article with the APA Public Interest Directorate. It was wonderful to read your new found perspective on the world — outside of yourself. Learning outside the classroom can be profoundly powerful. Sadly, we need not go too far to witness the despair faced by everyday Americans. 

I wanted to point you to some resources related to homelessness that might be of interest to you. In 2009, APA President James Bray commissioned a Task Force on Psychology's Contribution to End Homelessness. The report that followed provides a comprehensive look at the psychosocial issues associated with homelessness as well as what role psychologists can play to end homelessness. That report indicates that between 2 and 3 million people experience an episode of homelessness in the U.S. each year, including individual adults, families with children and youth who have left home, run away or "aged out" of foster care. It also states that people who are homeless are more likely to have poor physical health, and that homelessness is linked to involvement in the child welfare system/foster care, history of incarceration and hospitalization. One way to look at it is to understand that the cascade of hardships and difficulties associated with poverty can overwhelm marginalized and vulnerable adults, families and children, leading them to lose their homes, temporarily or permanently, as a result. 

I also wanted to alert you to the public policy implications of your article. There are constantly decisions being made by members of Congress that have real ramifications for the homeless and people living in poverty. For example, just last November, every recipient of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly "food stamps") experienced an across-the-board cut in their food assistance benefits. More cuts to that program in the $8-10 billion are expected in the coming months. For many homeless people, SNAP is one of the only poverty programs for which they are guaranteed access. 

Also, on Dec. 28, 2013, 1.3 million jobless workers faced a harsh cutoff from unemployment benefits. For many of these workers, these benefits provide the only safety net protecting them from foreclosure, poverty and possible homelessness. APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office is weighing in with Congress on these and a number of other issues related to poverty, homelessness, hunger and economic inequality. If you would like to be engaged and have your voice heard in Congress, please sign up for alerts from APA's Public Policy Advocacy Network (PPAN). 

As we begin 2014, the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, I hope others will join us in working to address poverty and homelessness in a truly effective way. I would like to share some other resources to further ignite your passions for issues of poverty and inequality. 

Every year on Oct. 17, the Office on Socioeconomic Status (OSES) recognizes the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, also known as World Poverty Day. As research supports, the consequences of poverty can be severe, leading to homelessness, poor health and early mortality. 

As you may be aware, the OSES joins the National Coalition for the Homeless, with many other organizations and colleges in recognizing, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The observance brings awareness to the plight of the homeless, and offers opportunities to organize and participate (PDF, 297KB) in activities to aid those individuals and families fighting the grip of poverty. Additionally, it offers you a community, camaraderie if you will, of like minds all working towards the same general goal. 

I know at times you can feel small in comparison to the large-scale issues in the world, but your awareness and continued education will help inform the future decisions you make. I'm glad you didn't miss your class, and stayed true to your commitment. Keep on learning, inside and outside the classroom. 

Sincerely and Respectfully,
Office on Socioeconomic Status