Success vs. Significance Revisited

When the homeless panhandle on the subways of New York City, most people don’t look up from their newspaper to acknowledge the request. I try not to do this and will more often than not give spare change, but the reality is that, at times, I am guilty of ignoring them as well. The act of looking a person in the eye, someone who has literally nothing, and saying “I do, in fact, have money in my pocket, but I’m not going to give it to you” is too psychologically threatening to many people. That action says I’m going to let you suffer because I don’t want to give away what I have. Our behavior is often rationalized by the idea that the person will simply spend the money on booze or drugs, or that each person is responsible for his fate. That may in fact be true, but there is a strong denial at work here. There’s an inherent self-protective shield we have, and we need to believe that things are relatively okay. You only need to pick up a newspaper to see plenty of misery in the world so our psyches are programmed to repress much of this to move on with our lives.

At the first subway stop on the way to the hospital one morning, a Hispanic man came into the car. He was in his 40’s, wearing blue-jeans, T-shirt and a baseball hat. There was a satchel hanging from one shoulder. He held what appeared like a thermos in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He looked as though he could pass for a significantly older paperboy. When the doors closed, he started to speak to everyone on the crowded train in a loud, confident voice:


Hello everyone, my name is _____________, and I’m an Outreach Worker for the city. I am giving out food to anyone who needs it and it’s absolutely free. I have sandwiches and some donuts.

When people noticed that the man wasn’t homeless, many looked up and listened. Maybe it’s okay to look if the person isn’t filthy?

Our organization is trying to feed as many people as possible but we don’t receive much funding. If there is anything you could donate, whether it be food or money, it would be appreciated. Even one penny can help. Please look into your hearts and give if you can.

The man then walked up to a disheveled person and offered him a sandwich.

No one is immune to being homeless. You could lose your job, your home, your family. Anyone, especially today, could be without a penny and have no one. Please know that people need your help and that someday you might need theirs. Please give if you can. Thank you and have a good day.

At that point the man walked around the car to see if anyone would donate. I would say every fourth or fifth person put something into the thermos-like container. I had four quarters in my pocket and I gave it to him. Like he did with everyone else, he smiled and said thank you to me, but you could see that his attention was already focused on moving to the next car. He was definitely energized.

About four hours I got back on the subway to go from the hospital to my private office. Strangely, the same man was on that train as well.

Hello everyone, my name is _____________, and I’m an Outreach Worker.

There was a little less vigor in his voice this time around, however, which I suppose would be suspected if he had spent all morning repeating the same speech. I had $.35 in my pocket and gave it to him. Again he said thank you.

In the early evening I got back on the subway to head downtown to a restaurant with some friends. Sure enough the man was there, in the same car as me, for a 3rd time.

No one is immune to being homeless. You could lose your job, your home, your family.

His voice was hoarse and the satchel was empty, hanging at his side, most of the food gone. Unless I was witness to some elaborate scam to get spare change in exchange for sandwiches, I concluded that the man had spent probably ten hours riding the subway system, handing out food, giving his speech and trying to collect money. Feeling extremely self-conscious that I hadn’t worked nearly as hard as he had, I gave him a dollar and asked “how did you do today?”

“Pretty good,” he said.

“This seems like a hard job.”

“As long as you like talking it’s not so bad. It may not look like it but it’s pretty rewarding.”

“I saw you three times today,” I said.

“Sorry, the people start to blur together after awhile. Thanks for donating,” he said, and walked away.
Seeing the man reminded me of this post about Success vs. Significance. Here’s a man who, in all likelihood, dedicated his entire day to improving the quality of life of the poor and hungry. If his full-time job is as an outreach worker, I can’t fathom he makes more than $25,000 per year, which is a pittance anywhere near New York City. He personally didn’t make a large dent in the plights of the homeless. He’ll never get rich doing this. He won’t even get to middle-class. He won’t ever be famous or garner significant recognition from anyone outside of his organization. And yet his life is significant. His life means something, it’s purposeful and isn’t about accumulation and consumption.

Can someone have a life of significance and get rich doing it? Of course. Do you have to help the homeless? Absolutely not. Can you enjoy your life and allow yourself to be a happy person? Definitely. But you have to contribute to whatever it is that you believe in, something that benefits more than yourself, to have real meaning in life. Otherwise you become a self-absorbed narcissist who is entrenched in his or her own problems and issues. That’s ultimately a recipe for psychological emptiness, something I see virtually every day in the office.

Although I’m sure it comes across as overly simplistic, I encourage most of my clients to engage in behaviors that benefit others. Whether it be a large group or singular person, a family member or complete stranger, is irrelevant. The point is that altruism is, ironically, an antidote for personal pain. The clients who do it tell me it works and when I do it – which, admittedly, is not as often as I should – I notice the same results. Therefore I keep pushing this idea onto them. And now onto you.

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Related Posts:

Success vs. Significance

I Broke up With my Light Box/Why Altruism is an Anti-Depressant

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14 Responses to “Success vs. Significance Revisited”

  1. Amber says:

    I admire this outreach worker. I really do. I don’t think I could do that kind of job every day. As significant as it may be, I think it’d get to me, and in the end cause me more sadness than joy. Like you said…he isn’t even making a dent. Good for him though, I hope that he gets satisfaction from the job.

  2. rach says:

    I keep quitting my job and going overseas to do 6 month stints of volunteer work because “my mental health is better when I do that” (according to my shrink) and because it makes me so freakin’ happy – and then I come back when I can’t pay my bills anymore.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I would use this technique with caution!
    The emptiness is only temporarily full with feelings of false altruism. When you are encouraged to do something meaningful at the suggestion of your shrink, it’s self serving, not altruistic.
    I’ve seen people become addicted to this false high, and end up giving so much of themselves, that they’ve nothing left, emotionally speaking. People who help to their detriment. Using volunteering or “being significant” as a way to avoid dealing with their own painful issues.

  4. goats says:

    I am always skeptical of our NYC local outreach workers. Not questioning the integrity of the specific guy you saw, but I know that there’s a guy who used to ride the Path named Teddy—whom I was convinced was pocketing a good deal of the money people gave him. I mean, these outreach guys may not be “homeless,” but they are not “much” better off themselves. There was no question half of it went in his pocket. But i don’t mind giving to someone like that, because at least they try to help themselves while helping others. It is the damn beggars sitting outside the banks, Mcdonalds, etc. begging for your spare change that disgust me. They can barely stand b/c they’re so drunk or f’d up. While I know I should have some compassion, I find I find I only hate them and want to extinguish them from this earth. They are no different than rats praying on people’s garbage. Yes, this is probably disturbed and mental and stuff…so I apologize for my rant.

  5. Tracie says:

    What a wonderful thing that man is doing. His act is both successful and significant. Giving a sandwich to someone is significant if they’re starving, and that act is successful in (even temporarily) improving that person’s life. Such small acts, and such a large impact.
    Goats, your comment’s pretty disturbing, actually. I understand disliking the homeless, but wanting to extinguish them?
    I try my best to understand when I see a homeless person intoxicated. If I’d lost everything, there’d be a good chance that I’d want to bludgeon a few brain cells for the opportunity to feel good too. It doesn’t make it healthy, but I “get” it. I always try to give food rather than cash to those people. I will admit I was fucking pissed when a Columbus crackhead threw his sandwich back at me last year though.

  6. Nadia says:

    Thanks for the post, Dr. Rob. I volunteer as a dog walker at my animal shelter 3-4 times a week, about 2 hours each day. I also show up for fund raising (wrapping presents for donations) and taking dogs off site to hopefully be adopted. Pretty much, I do whatever I can and love every day I get to be there; I feel grateful to the dogs, but afterward often worry that I’m not doing enough. So I took care of some dogs, found homes — so what? There are still millions of people who need help, and I’m doing nothing for them. I have a hard time dealing with that. This was an interesting post, and I wonder if others feel the same. No matter how much you do, it’s never enough. Probably an excuse people use to do nothing.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is a great post Dr. Rob. I have spent several years volunteering with homeless people. I also go to a church called Church Under the Bridge. We target homeless people, low income and drug addicts and alcoholics. It is so awesome to see some of the richest people in town worshiping underneath a bridge next to a homeless person. A lot of these homeless people that I know that are begging on the street would do anything to have a job even making the smallest amount of money to just pay for food and a place to live. A lot of these men and women work harder trying to earn money and do small odd jobs than the richest people in this world. But they are looked at as drunks because they dont have a place to clean up and take a shower. While the people who have a place to clean up and still go get drunk every night are looked at differently. I think people would see things so differently if they took a chance to get to know one of these men or women instead of being scared of them or not wanting to near them because they are dirty. They are humans just like everyone else and deserve the same respect that everyone else gets. And the way this economy is going anyone who keeps their jobs and houses are going to be lucky. And if you are one of the people who loose those then you will be looked at in the same way you look at these other homeless people.

  8. Dyson says:

    If you are faking your interactions with people anyway, why not put up a facade of someone who has intrinsic value?
    People don’t understand that ‘doing significant things’ or ‘being significant’ can change their perceptions of themselves and their world. I agree with your sentiments, Dr. Rob.

  9. Taephit says:

    Well, there is also the argument that you are hurting them more than helping them. Enabling them to continue to live at the bottom.
    Most of my life I’ve given the homeless food and refused to give them money (due to a fun instance with a crack-head). So I figured what could be the harm in giving them food?
    However this idealism clashed with the multiple, near-identical stories that parents of runaways tell.
    I’m sure as a shrink you’ve seen lots of cases of genuine parental abuse leading to kids running away, but in most cases the runaways in question are just dumb angry little shits who should know better.
    If they are lucky, they spend some time on the street, realize how much it sucks and return home to their loving parents. But often people who give them money and food enable them to live on the street much longer, or indefinatly and they never return home. This is the nightmare of many parents of runaways, who curse the kindhearted people who give their kids the means to remain homeless.
    I know it seems like the humane thing to do, but the consequences of enabling homelessness are far crueler than denying them spare change…but then again, I don’t have any solutions to the problem either.

  10. Cassandra says:

    Hi Dr. Rob,
    It just happens to be a coincidence that I’ve just read an article about this phenomenon of well-being among those who give of themselves …
    Jordan Grafman, PhD, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke says, “Scans show that the brain structures that are activated when you get a reward are the same ones that are activated when you give. In fact, they’re activated more.” One of primary chemicals that is released is dopamine.
    And according to bioethicist Stephen G. Post, PhD, he says that giving a donation or volunteering lights up the same pleasure source in the brain as does eating or sex.
    So there you have it. Scientific proof that not being a self-absorbed little twit will make you feel awesome, full and orgasmic.

  11. Jenny says:

    Just this past week I organized a Habitat for Humanity volunteer day for my office team. Sometimes it felt like pulling teeth to get people to commit to this event, to look up from their Outlook inboxes and client demands. Even after arriving to the site, people complained about how early it was, how cold, and how long the wait was. Being that most of us had never hammered in our lives, especially not for 6 hours straight, it was amazing to see that by the end, everyone was smiling and we felt closer as a team. The next day everyone was still sore but retained that feeling of accomplishment, good will, and said they had a great time. There truly is something therapeutic about volunteering.

  12. Vince says:

    You can make good money being homeless. I heard about this college kid who did a project on homelessness by going out to intersections and highway off-ramps to panhandle. He made a killing. When I don’t feel like giving my spare change away, I just say, “Sorry dude. Hope it gets better.”

  13. To really help the homeless people should look into donating to organizations that offer services/support, as they also offer some structure to help people move up and not just tread water.
    As for volunteering and/or “paying it forward”, I never (with 1 exception) offer this as an idea, because it needs to come from the person.
    The 1 exception was for a patient who through volunteering at an animal shelter was able to see some value in herself, which wasn’t previously there.

  14. […] bringing me increased happiness, could giving this man his train fare home do the trick? I’ve given money to homeless people before and I’ve felt great about it, but that wasn’t when I was […]