Kathryn Jean Lopez" />

City streets in August

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City life is hard. It’s hard on the body, mind and soul. You can become completely inundated with activity, overwhelmed with people, sounds and, well, garbage. That last one is especially noticeable in August. When the Republican convention was held in New York City in August 2004, just three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, “The Daily Show,” then with Jon Stewart, had a great advertisement near Madison Square Garden. It read: “That smell? Freedom.”

One street that I frequent was described by a friend last August as looking “perpetually like a garbage truck exploded.” Whenever I see the mess, I hear Pope Francis in my head talking about a “throwaway society.” This is no way to live. That particular street seems to scream it at a painfully high pitch, and it’s far from one block of mess. And I think the obvious responses are to run away, drown out the reality (which is part of the reason, I suppose, why everyone who passes me seems to have earplugs or headphones on and eyes on their phones) or try to do something to make the place a little more humane. Otherwise, it can feel an awful lot like a concrete jail. Which seems like the very opposite of freedom.

And there are often people sitting or standing or sprawled out on the concrete, especially in Midtown, and even when it’s hot and humid, and when it’s cold and raining.

If you pay attention, you get to know faces. If you have actual human interactions, you get to know the names and personalities and preferences. A few months ago, a man stood near Penn Station asking for an iced coffee. I heard him and was amazed that people could ignore such a specific request. I bought him the coffee. In the end, he was smiling, I was smiling. I didn’t change his life, but I thought of what Mother Teresa would say about smiling. Sometimes that may be all you can do as you’re running for a bus or train or have your kids in the car. Smile and say a prayer. But see with the heart of God.

There’s a church that I sometimes attend where the entire block holds opportunities for charitable action and a subsequent examination of conscience. As it happens, I recently went to confession there, and afterwards, by the time I walked to the corner to catch my Uber, I was out of cash and water. I had no $10 Subway or McDonald’s gift cards with me, which I always intend on having in my purse but only sometimes do. I thought I had nothing to offer a man on the corner, and I selfishly was frustrated that I couldn’t get off the block without passing him. But worse than not having anything material to offer, I closed my heart to him in that moment. He stood there, being ignored, as he said, “Stop and help.” And I didn’t look at him. I crossed the street instead. My Uber driver would have waited for me if I’d taken a moment to look into the man’s eyes and shake his hand and ask his name — to acknowledge his existence as a creation of the same God I had just adored and received at Mass.

I know it’s all complicated. We all have time constraints and financial responsibilities. And I don’t think there is one standard answer to how to deal with these situations as you’re trying to live your life with all of its demands. But living your life as a Christian means seeing Christ in the world and bringing him to others. Our mission is love.

I helped a man named Bryan on the west side a few nights ago. We stopped at a Mediterranean place, and he ordered a salad with chicken. Extra tomatoes — he seemed to have a childlike joy about the tomatoes. He reminded me that despite the overwhelming need found on these city streets — and in all of life sometimes — we can still choose gratitude for everyday joys. I didn’t change Bryan’s life that day, but he may have changed mine.

His tomato reaction looked a lot like freedom to me. And could make city life a lot more livable. It also seems what we’re all called to live a Christian life, in town or country.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.

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