Last week, walking from the San Diego convention center to my hotel, I passed a homeless woman. She was sitting on a low-lying brick retaining wall, not far from Petco Park. I didn't think much about her then--but she has been on my mind almost every day since.
That's because I was a jerk to her, though she didn't know it.
I'd been attending an online marketing conference. As a conference attendee, I was entitled to a free boxed lunch every day. That afternoon, my intention was to get the food, take it back to my hotel, and eat it poolside. It was a cloudless, warm afternoon, and I couldn't wait to absorb the sun.
En route to my hotel, I saw the homeless woman. She was in the same position I'd seen her in when I passed by her that morning, except now she held a plastic bag up to one side of her face to block the sun. Next to her was a small cart of assorted belongings. She took no notice of me, and I gave her only a quick glance.
And yet, in that moment, my instinct was to stop and offer her my boxed lunch. Instead, I second-guessed myself (an expertise of mine). Giving homeless people food and money only encourages them to stay on the streets, right? Since I give money to homeless organizations every year, I shouldn't have to surrender my sandwich too, right? And how do I know she hadn't eaten? How do I know she would trust food from a stranger?
In my hotel room, I opened the box and suddenly had absolutely no interest in it. It was the same conference-quality sandwich I'd eaten the previous two days. So I dropped the sandwich in the trash and proceeded to the pool.
To my dismay, I discovered the hotel wasn't offering food or beverage service at the pool, nor could you have room service deliver lunch there. Instead, I had to go to my room, find the hotel restaurant menu, call in my order, have the restaurant call my cell phone when it was ready, then go down and pick it up.
How ridiculous and unaccommodating the hotel was being, I thought, irritated. And then it hit me: This wasn't just an inconvenience. This was payback time, a life lesson. I was having to work for the food I wanted, and rightly so, because I hadn't even bothered to offer the food I didn't want to someone who probably could have used it. Instead, I had callously discarded it.
I'm not proud of this, by the way. However, I'm glad I realized what I'd done, and I decided to start making amends right away. Before checking out of my room, I left a large tip and a thank-you note for the maid. I realize this wasn't the same as offering food to a homeless person. But it was a start. And it's my hope that in the future, I won't second-guess any act of compassion.