Nancy Vaughan Column: Answer pope's challenge by looking people in the eyes

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 Mar 26, 2017

Pope Francis made headlines earlier this month when he suggested that when confronted by someone asking for a handout we simply give them some money. 

Naturally, debate ensued. What if they use it for alcohol or drugs instead of food? How does that really help the person toward self-sufficiency?

But Francis had more to say: “Stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.” This part of the message was lost in most of the debate. Yet this part of the message IS the message. And it’s a message that has implication far beyond handing a couple of bucks to a panhandler.

It’s really the same message he has given in other instances. When asked about LGBT individuals, his response: “Who am I to judge?” had little to do with the LGBT community, really. Just as his message to hand a dollar or two to a beggar has little to do with the beggar. His message is to US. Who are we to judge?

That came across again in his Lenten message. He suggests that instead of giving up candy or alcohol, we give up indifference toward others.

I can’t think of anything more difficult to do. Judging others is rampant in our culture. I do it. We all do it. Those of us in the human services field are often expected to do it. Are we handing out only healthy food at the pantry? Are we helping only those who deserve it? Are we sure they need it?

Each of those questions is based on a judgment of people we don’t know and, more importantly, don’t see. They exist as problems to be solved, not as people who hold equal status as fellow humans. I’ve spent many years discussing human problems. And I keep coming to the same conclusion as Francis: Look the person in the eyes. Touch his or her hands.

Acknowledging the dignity of those asking for help is essential for both giver and recipient. The difficulty is that on both sides we’ve been well-trained in the activity of judgment-based transactions. Likely if we had no money to give, but followed the pope's advice, stopping to look the person in the eye and touch a hand, the response would be less than friendly.

What then? Immediately decide that the person didn’t deserve our kindness in the first place?

I don’t think this challenge at all means we enable people to be less than they can be. I do think it requires that we focus on being in relationship with people as equals. In relationship, we grow because we have the security of knowing someone else cares about our success. We become a partner, not a giver or taker.

There is a popular greeting that originated in India: namaste. It literally means “I bow to you” and is, in fact, accompanied by a bow in Eastern cultures. The Na’vi in the film “Avatar” have a version of this idea with their greeting, “I see you.”

Perhaps adopting something as simple as a greeting could begin to change our hearts?

Nancy Vaughan is president of United Way of Madison County Inc. Her column appears the fourth Sunday of each month.