Short-Term Thinking vs. Long-Term Thinking

I saw something one evening last week that I’m having trouble forgetting. I was running errands here in our Silicon Valley community. It’s not the wealthiest community in the valley, but also not the poorest. One of my stops was a mall with a Sprouts market at one end, a Office Depot in the middle, and a Sports Authority at the other end. I was headed to the latter.

But in front of the Sprouts stood a man and his young son, begging. The man was probably in his thirties, dark-skinned – Indian or Pakistani – and he looked a little lost, as if this was the last place he expected to be on a weeknight. His son had those amazing wide, dark eyes typical of children of that heritage. The man’s hand-lettered sign was small and hard to read, as if he was embarrassed to be asking for help. As I continued through the parking lot, I saw a woman opposite the Office Depot whom I assumed to be his wife. She was also holding a small hand-lettered sign for help, also looking lost – and a little scared. It was going to be dark soon.

I noticed them – and remember them – for a number of reasons. First, homeless people aren’t that visible in this particular suburb. I won’t say we don’t have them, because I know we do, and I know we have homeless families. The latter are even less visible. Second, the fact that they were South Asian was unusual as well. My Caucasian sense is that that culture tends to be very family-oriented. Where was their extended family?

Our situations were stark contrasts between those who think in the long term and those who think in the short term. There was a family, desperate, looking for help, a meal, a place to stay, something to get them through the night. And there I was, heading to Sports Authority because we needed more rubber pads for the floor of our home gym. There was a family looking only at the short-term – getting sustenance before darkness fell. And there I was, wondering if we’ll have enough to retire on in seven years.

It didn’t take too much imagination to create their backstory, because there’s always a backstory. I often wonder how the homeless become homeless, how they get to the point where they’ve cycled through every possible contingency of family and friends and support systems, only to find themselves on the hard, cold asphalt of the outside world. The father probably came here looking for tech work. He got a good job. Maybe he and his wife even scraped together enough to buy a house at the height of the market. But then the downturn hit. He lost his job. The house lost value. They couldn’t sell and couldn’t pay and couldn’t stay.

I have no experience with situations like this. I have always had a roof over my head and the safety net of generous parents beneath me. In 1993, we bought our first house. We leveraged everything to do it – saved for a year, cashed in retirement plans, borrowed money from my parents – and had almost nothing in our checking account the week the deal closed. The following Wednesday, the magazine I worked for was unexpectedly shuttered. It would be disingenuous to say I was scared, because three days later I had an offer for another job at a higher salary. That’s the Silicon Valley I know.

And sometimes the story isn’t what it seems to be. In 2009, there was a small uproar over the eviction of a man named Harvey Lesser from his apartment in Boulder, Colorado, fueled by the fact that a freelance photographer was there to record the event. Lesser was described as an unemployed software developer with chronic health problems. But the backstory – which I only know because Harvey was married to my first cousin for 20 years – was a little more complex. Yes, Harvey was unemployed and had chronic health problems relating to obesity, but he had also gambled away a $500,000 inheritance from his parents over the previous few years. None of the stories mentioned that little fact.

Backstory are great for context, but context belongs to the long term. That little family was focused on the short-term, on getting through the night. As someone living for the long term, I believed that whatever I could have given them wouldn’t have helped them in the short term. Recalling stories like Harvey’s didn’t help. I drove on to Sports Authority, but I still remember their faces, and probably will for the long term.

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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7 Responses to Short-Term Thinking vs. Long-Term Thinking

  1. gingerR says:

    My own brush with unemployment last year made me more sympathetic to people asking for change on the streets. If I could tell myself that it really wasn’t my fault that I lost my job then I could tell myself that they need some change and it’s no fault of theirs.

    • I concur with your feelings of sympathy, Ginger. The question really is, how do we act on them in order to do some good? It’s a tough question. We contribute each holiday season to the local community services group, which is dedicated to working with the homeless, especially homeless families. I’d love to give something to each one individually, but I feel like my money goes further that way.

      By the way, if you really want to have some fun, get a list of what your local shelter needs, and then go to Costco for a shopping spree. I did that last year and it was a blast.

  2. Barb says:

    People holding signs asking for help are everywhere now, including suburban strip malls, at gas stations, at every street intersection, particularly on-ramps to freeways. It is very sad and very disturbing. Last week I gave $10 to an elderly homeless man I pass every time I drive up James St. to Virginia Mason. He is always there, beneath the freeway, feeding birdseed to a flock of pigeons. His kindness toward the birds, and his scraping together whatever he has for THEIR food despite his impoverished condition, really touched me. I could barely hand him the surprise bill before the light changed so I watched in my rearview mirror as he suddenly realized it was more than $1. The $10 donation was totally worth the ureka moment I witnessed. When I drove by later in the day, he was sharing a loaf of bread with 2 homeless friends looking extremely happy.

    • Good karma for you, Barb. When you see a homeless person in the same place very day, it’s at once sad but also gives you the opportunity to get to know them. When I worked in San Francisco, I met a hopeful but poor woman named Sue who hung out on the same corner in the financial district. I used to buy her lunch every so often, and I still think of her.

  3. Mayura says:

    South Asians(Indians and Pakistanis) are caucasian, so are Ethiopians and middle-easterners- look it up!

  4. Lisa Bennett says:

    I guess to me, this represents the head and the heart – let them work together. The “head” says: give to address the causes of poverty; give to an agency that knows how to distribute the resources effectively; give for the long-term effect, etc. The “heart” says: give now, to these people who are right here in front of me, because they’re my human family and they’re looking at me, looking to me for help.
    Howard, I do both. That way, you don’t have to worry about a (contrived) dichotomy between cause and effect, between short- and long-term. They’re both important.
    I always like reading your column! Keep up the good work.

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