Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November, 17, 2003
Look into the face of a person in need
When I was last at the Edmonton International Airport, a man approached and started talking to me. I did not catch his unusual name because he said it too fast.
Originally from Inuvik, the man was carrying a backpack which he said contained carving tools.
After living in Montreal for a year and a half and working as a wood carver, he decided living in such a large city was not for him. So he tried a possible move to Edmonton.
But he didn't know anyone in Edmonton.
The night that I met him he'd been in the city for three nights and three days. He tried to explore the city but because he ran out of cash, he got stuck at the airport, where he had been spending his nights.
On his last trip to downtown Edmonton, he had to walk for seven hours back to the airport because he didn't have any money.
While he was talking to me, my mind held onto three threads: one was the thread of his story; the second was the message he was trying to get across; and the third was how much cash I had in my pocket.
When strangers tell you a litany of life's misfortunes do you immediately think they want some help? What kind of help should be offered? Would listening suffice?
I was not sure what this man wanted from me. He came across as someone who just needed to talk. I did not notice any sign of worry on his face. If I were in his position, "anxiety" probably would have been written all over my face in bold letters. But something tells me that this man is an example of what Emmanuel Levinas, a 21st century French moral philosopher, would call, the "Face," or in other words, a person in need.
In between figuring out some implausibility in his stories and deciding how I could politely get out of the conversation, I was undecided whether to give him some cash. I was not sure if he was for real or if he was taking me for a ride.
If I would consult Levinas, he would tell me, "What is holding you back from helping this man is the contextualized signification you attached to him."
What is my "contextualized signification" of this man? That he might be someone trying to con me for some cash; that he might later follow me and ask for more.
Isn't it unavoidable that we attach contextualized signification to people we interact with? Doesn't that make our life easier and more organized? Somehow it does. But it also makes our life highly compartmentalized and leads us to behave in a predictable manner: to be judgmental.
As Levinas advised, when looking at the Face (meaning the person in need), "one should not be influenced by the colour of the eyes." To do that is to allow oneself to be distracted from the message being conveyed: the person is in need.
But how do we tell the difference between a person in real need and a con artist?
We don't always recognize the difference because sometimes it's difficult to discern what is real from what is unreal.
Therefore, there is no guarantee that the $5 bill I gave this man would be used for something worthwhile.
And there is also no guarantee that I am helping him out of the hole that he got himself into.
One can only hope.
After all Jesus also advised to walk the extra mile if needed.
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