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Starting Point

Given a choice, accept the love


I played God tonight.

Not in a dramatic way. Nothing particularly cataclysmic or earthshaking. Nor did I have a sense of omnipotence -- or anything else starting with “omni.” Nevertheless, I felt for a moment that I had an inkling of God’s relationship with us, from the other point of view.

I went on my usual trip to a convenience store for my usual six-pack of soda, when the usual thing for living in a city happened: A homeless man called out: “Can I have some change?”

“What do you want?” I said, smiling.

Often, when I say that, the person is so surprised, he’s speechless. He’s so used to begging for leftovers and scraps that he can’t imagine he has a choice. But I’ve always figured that if you are only going to eat once today, it should be something you like. So I always ask. Never just hand him something.

This man yelled from across the parking lot, “Money.”

“No, I mean, what do you want to eat? I’ll buy you whatever you want,” I said, glancing at the cigarette in his left hand, “but it has to be food. No cigarettes.”

“But that’s what I want. I want money for cigarettes.”

I said, as gently as I could, “No, I won’t give you money for cigarettes. Just food. But you can have anything you want.”


Cigs or nothing. And he chose nothing. I couldn’t believe it.

Saddened, I went into the store. I thought all the while, there’s so much here I could give him, if only he had let me. That fresh loaf of bread and the jar of peanut butter -- that could feed him for a couple days. Look at that milk, all those juices calling from behind their polished walls of glass. Perhaps I should have brought him into the store with me. If he’d seen all the things he could choose from, surely he would have forgotten about the cigarettes in favor of some crackers or a sweet roll. Maybe I should buy him something anyway.


As much as it hurt my heart to do so, I resisted. I wasn’t going to force it on him. I wasn’t going to make him accept my gift. It was his decision.

As I walked out to my car, the man once again called out -- though this time, a little softly. A little hesitantly.


I was half-afraid to answer, not wanting to hear him ask for cigarettes once more. “Yes?”

He looked nervous, like he realized he might have blown his chance. “Uh, could I have something to eat?”

I nearly wept for joy. But I didn’t want to embarrass him so I just said: “What do you want?”


“Chips? That’s it?”

He self-consciously nodded.

Without another word, I headed back in the store.

I nearly danced my way through the tiny shopping aisles. I happily fretted over which of those turkey sandwiches they keep in the refrigerator he would like best. I carefully picked out the best of the ripe yellow bananas. And the biggest bag of chips.

I was so glad he changed his mind. All this he would have missed out on, and all he had to do was say, “Yes.” I know it wasn’t all that much, but as convenience stores go, it was the makings of a gourmet meal.

Without a word, I handed the filled brown paper bag to the man. He took it with a quiet, simple thank you, and immediately started eating the chips.

I sighed. Not wanting him to miss the really good part by filling up on the little things, I said, “Eat the sandwich.”

“Oh. Yeah.” He looked in the bag to see what else I had given him.

As I drove away, I wondered: How many times has God stood at the doorway of my life asking, “What do you want?”

And I picked cigarettes.

“Hey, Mister, can I have some change?”

“What do you want?”


“I’ll give you anything else -- love, friends, kindness, compassion.”

Cigarettes. All I had to say was, “Sure. I’d love something. Any little thing would be fine.” But instead, no, I’ll just stand out here in the cold and dark and misery. I’ll wait here in my loneliness and despair.

Oh, the disappointment. The sadness that I had turned away so much. The disbelief. That, given the choice between everything and nothing, I would choose nothing.

I can’t even imagine what I must have missed out on, what care and concern, what love had been mine for the taking. How much more I would have received, if only I had said, “Yes”?

But if I have the courage, I, too, can call out. I, too, can change my mind, accept an offered gift. And if I do, I hope I realize what’s the good part -- not miss it because I’m all caught up in the little things.

I hope that I realize that a gift of love and peace, of friends and families, of laughter and tears is a gift far greater than I could have ever asked for or ever dreamed of. And I hope I remember to say a simple thank you.

Ashley Merryman, a former member of the Clinton administration, is a writer and attorney in Los Angeles. Her e-mail address is AKMerryman@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001