This week I was riding home on the metro one day and I witnessed this strange course of events.
Typically, on the DC metro, there is not a lot of panhandling when compared with a city like NY—in fact, it is practically a rarity on the Washington, DC Metro.
So you can sort of image my surprise, when I entered the metro this week and immediately hear a young man begging for money (i.e. “a beggar”) coming down one end of the train car.
What made this particular panhandling scene really stand out though was that the beggar, who appeared young and able bodied, had a serious speech impairment. He kept trying to say something to the effect that he was homeless and needed $16 for a bed to sleep in that night. But he was mumbling, stuttering, and barely able to get the words out, but clearly he needed help and people on the train were giving him money, especially one young family, where the father put some bills into his daughter’s hand who reached out to the beggar, who gratefully grabbed the money and continued trying to repeat the words that seemed stuck in his mouth.
Then, things turned stranger, because there was another young man in a wheelchair with his back to me—so that I could not see what was wrong with him. And all of a sudden this disabled person starts yelling at the beggar to “speak up, get it out, and tell me what’s wrong” – again and again in this horrendous mocking way to the beggar who could barely speak.
The beggar kept trying to get the words out that he was homeless and needed $16 for a bed for the night—but he struggled again and again—mumbling and falling all over himself trying ask for help. And no matter how hard he tried; the disabled man in the wheelchair kept taunting him—as if holding out a bone in front of a dog, but never letting him get any. If the beggar couldn’t speak clearly and ask for the money, the disabled man wasn’t going to give him any and on top of it was going to shame him even more than he already was in front of the crowded train car.
It was devastating to watch; yet everyone did. Somehow, no one could say anything to the disabled man about his behavior—because he was disabled.
After the beggar made it past the wheelchair, staring at the man who mocked him, and made it down to the other end of the car, the beggar turned around one last time, looked at the disabled man in disbelief—like how of all people could you do this to me—and left the train.
At that point, the man in the wheelchair turned his chair and I saw he had only one leg. And he was angry. Obviously angry at the world for his loss and pain and determined to let loose on whomever crossed his path, even a speech-impaired beggar.
I thought about this human tragedy during and long after, and am still obviously thinking about it.
I suppose I expect to find situations where the strong prey on the weak—that’s like Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest”, but I was taken aback by seeing one person down on their luck “getting it” from someone else who was also in pain and suffering. Somehow, I guess I just thought—maybe naively—that someone who knew “how it felt” would have more mercy on someone else in similar shoes.
I come away with a life lesson about leadership and management that for those fortunate enough to achieve these positions, you should never take them for granted. They are not an entitlement because of hard work, education, or other achievements; rather these positions are a privilege, and this teaches me that you should never look down on others or rise up on the backs of others. Each person, each life in this world is valuable. And every person deserves respect and should give respect—whether they are begging and speech-impaired or disabled and missing a leg. We all need to have mercy on one another. The world can be a harsh place indeed.