I am awkward. I can’t help it, I was born like that. I am self-centered, egotistical and opinionated. Aren’t we all? I am flawed but I am kind. That’s why it pains me to say that I feel like I have done the man in this photograph a disservice.

He and his friends were the best group of people I ran into on a Thursday photo walk. We shared a brief encounter and it was an experience that left me feeling great about people’s capacity for kindness. They called me over, they encouraged me to take their pictures, and we shouted some niceties at each other while I stuck my camera in their face.

This man took off his overcoat and showed me his intricate and colorful tattoos. The light was all wrong, the pictures of him all turned out bad, and I didn’t get the exact representation of the moment the way I remembered it with him.

I gave them all my name, thanked them, and before I left the presence of their company I went to shake his hand. He grabbed my hand with both of his hands as I thanked him. He seemed sincere in his kindness. It felt great to me.

A couple of days later I was back in the area, and I ran into him again. He was alone this time, but I recognized him from across the street, and as he crossed my path we shared Hellos. I said “What an odd coincidence seeing you again” and he agreed. The conversation was awkward, I felt like I should say something, but I wasn’t sure what. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was “just looking for interestingness, just taking pictures seeing what I can see”

Somewhere in the awkwardness, it came up that he was sick of the “bullshit at the mission.” AS I write this I’m shaking my head at my inability to seize the moment and take initiative. I’m a journalism student, and here I am with a chance to form a bond with someone that obviously has an interesting story to tell, and I’m just not talking.

He didn’t say he was homeless, and I didn’t get that vibe from him in our initial encounter. As I realized that he was in some sort of state of displacement, but was not really coming out and saying it I became confused as to how to proceed with this social interaction.

So we began to drift apart, and the further he got away the less eye contact I made. I shouted after him to “stay warm” and went on about my business.

I’m ashamed to say that I believe I was not talking because I didn’t have anything to offer him, and once I realized he might be homeless I knew I didn’t have a place I could offer him to stay. It seems rather hypocritical to write something on the plight of homelessness and not really have anything to offer in the way of immediate assistance. So I feel like shit now.

I have a three-year old daughter and a wife in a small apartment on the other side of town. I don’t have a job so I can’t give him any money because I just really don’t have any. I don’t even have enough money to take him to get some lunch at a fast food place or something. It’s pathetic. I want to help him.

Instead of just saying all that to him, and sticking around, we just both let each other go on about our business. He might not even be homeless. Maybe he works at the mission, maybe he is just a traveler passing through town, I don’t know because I didn’t ask.

I just let him go. I didn’t tell him that I wanted another picture because this one turned out so bad. I didn’t offer him a helping hand, I didn’t try to keep the conversation going, and I didn’t even get his name.

I’m sorry for that kind stranger and I hope your path in life is a positive one. I’m sorry that we didn’t talk more. I’m still overcoming some social awkwardness. I have bad habits when it comes to dealing with people in public. I didn’t have anything to offer and I walked away.

The least I could have done was taken the time to get to know you and your story a little better. I had fallen victim to my own self-preservation. In this society of virtual conversations and online anonymity kind strangers are becoming fewer and farther in between. The ugliness of the internet gets to me sometimes. I cherish these moments of face to face interaction, even though initializing them is like pulling teeth. In my years of experience in socializing I have been burned enough times to know that you just can’t trust everyone. Since I don’t know you, I don’t trust you. I’m sorry for that. It’s just the way of the world. I feel horrible about it and the person it has turned me into.

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The Kindness of Strangers & Social Awkwardness

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14 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers & Social Awkwardness

  1. I suspect most of us in that situation would have reacted in much the same way. It’s difficult to engage with someone without a starting point and a starting point is usually something in common. If you know nothing of one another, it’s difficult to get to a starting point. Anyway, I think had he seen your photo he would have been tremendously pleased. You’re too hard on yourself.

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  2. We can never know all of the behind-the-scenes stories that would simplify situations like this. Life is just too complicated. But for me, the takeaway wisdom in this moment is that you recognized the struggle. That means that the next time you’re faced with such a moment, and the next, and the next, will lead you to better answers as you contemplate what you wanted to do. Thank you for asking yourself the questions. It’s the only way to move forward.
    Peace.

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  3. You are a beautiful person. And, man, have I been there. It is hard to be put on the spot with a stranger. You don’t know that guy or his situation, and yet you still sense that there is something you could have or wished you had done, but in the moment you freeze, and… And yet, then again, you don’t have the resources, anyway. What *could* you have done, really? I am the same way. Don’t beat yourself up, though. That man was kind to you, and I know he sensed your kindness, too. Kindness is worth more than money or words — and who knows? Maybe you’ll see him again.

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  4. This makes me sad. As others have already said, I see myself in this. I did try to do a post about homelessness in my town about 2 years ago. I went down to where they all hang out and I actually sat down and talked to one guy. He was as nice as could be. He reads voraciously and hangs out at the library. I gave him my card so he could look up the blog and read my post. He never commented on the blog, so I wonder if I offended. I see him around town sometimes and always think, I should stop and talk to Lurch. But then I don’t. I’m on my way somewhere, or…I have a list of excuses. None of them are any good. I intended to do some follow ups to that story, but I let it fall into thin air. It’s really hard to approach people. I don’t know why that is, because usually people are surprisingly kind and approachable. Don’t be so damned hard on yourself. You are pushing yourself every day. Each encounter is a challenge. You have to take baby steps before you can start flying around like Superman. And the worst thing about it all, is our feelings of guilt, of not being able to HELP.

    Sorry for the ramble.

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    • I know! I keep hearing that about taking baby steps and not being too hard on myself, but in my situation I don’t really have anyone to push me into it. Sometimes that is all it takes is having that other person right there to give you a shove in the right direction. I bet he wasn’t offended, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just never bothered to look. Homelessness, it sucks. What else can we say? I think about them often, and I guess just by doing that, by remembering they are there and reminding people every once in a while:
      “Hey, what about the Homeless?” It’s the best I can do. Just keep it in the conversation. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments!

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  5. I think we’re all much the same … we want to help, but can’t always offer much.

    When I’ve got spare money, I give it away. I’ve given people my gloves, my jacket, a blanket from my car. But, I don’t always have something to offer; and it is tough to know what to offer when you have no money of your own to spare. I sometimes wonder if just talking to the person as if they’re an equal is helpful — I suspect many people pass by, or look down upon the people on the street. So, being able to speak to the as you would anyone else might be a well-appreciated gesture.

    But, like you, when I have nothing tangible to offer, I walk away feeling awful. I’ve been known to drive away in tears.

    I just try to do what I can, when I can … I think that’s all we can do. One person cannot solve all the problems … but, if we all do just a little bit, it can make a collective difference, I think.

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    • I think that there is a lot to be said for treating them as equals. It’s easy for me to do that because I’ve never been rich and my lowest point so far was pretty low so I can sort of relate. I think I’m curious about the lives of homeless people because I feel like it isn’t that far-fetched that I could one day be in a similar situation. I loved your comment because it reminded me if the times that I’ve lent a helping hand to homeless guys. I’ve given them cash, change, food and even let a couple of homeless guys sleep on my couch and use my shower once. In hindsight that might not have been the smartest move on my part but it was freezing that night and luckily for me they were nice guys and didn’t murder me in my sleep. I gave them an unopened bottle of peppermint schnapps on their way out the door the following morning, to my surprise the older of the two opened it, chugged it and handed me back the empty bottle. I had never seen anything like that before. Alcoholism personified.

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  6. That;’s a powerful story. Try not to feel so bad about yourself – we all do better in hindsight. I am sure that you are plenty kind. Thanks for stopping by my Garden Reverie blog earlier – I’m glad I came to visit yours. Cackie

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