We walk timidly. Then with confidence. Our conversation gains pace. My reserve starts to beat a retreat, and his guard begins to drop. Our talk moves from the straightforward to the obscure, shifting from the concrete to the esoteric. Then, without warning, it happens, pitching me into dangerous waters. In the streetlights, I notice a man begging in the shadowed netherworld, sitting low down on his blanket stoop. The face looks up at us, hopeful; the mouth mutters something beseechingly. My date strides pastMy date strides past without hesitation without hesitation. I sense my pulse quicken as he continues to talk to me about the beauty of the Second Holy Temple.

And then the self-talk starts. He didn’t see the man. He is focused on what he is talking about. But small voices inside me begin to gain force. Tiny figures join together in my head and begin to murmur. The Second Holy Temple?! What about seeing other people’s pain! I shake my head to silence them. Don’t jump to conclusions, I tell them with some intensity. The buzz lowers. I tune back in to our conversation.

He is so earnest, so knowledgeable, I notice admiringly. I am pleased I am able to quiet the doubts. We wait to cross the road, the red light giving us cause to pause as a unit on the street corner. United in a common goal, I breathe, relieved. We move forward together on the instruction of a small green man. Absurdly, I imagine I see the green man take a threatening step towards my companion, two angry lines creasing his emerald forehead. I shake my head to clear it. I nearly laugh out loud. I feel lighter. Closer.

But then it happens again. We pass not one, not two, but three gray-clad figures who plead with us softly for a penny. Once more, without missing a beat, he walks on with a peaceful lack of awareness. I exhale and my eyes water. I see the people in my head clustering around each other, their disappointment clear. They band together, almost mob-like. Ask him! they demand in unison, some brandishing fists. Uncover his flaws! Strip away the illusion! They gain force. I’ll ask him, but only to give him a chance, to hear his side, I concede.

And so I do. I ask about why he did not stop, why he did not consider the plight of the people we had passed. He tells me, eloquently. Charity begins at home. Who knows where the money really goes—drugs, alcohol. He does not want to feed their addictions; this is not really helping them. I listen, but I don’t hear. I understand, but I do not want to comprehend. I give him counterarguments. I am not sure if I say them out loud or whether they take form only in my head. What of compassion? Cultivating sensitivity? Becoming a more merciful person? Not ignoring others’ plight? The seed of disappointment mushrooms within me, distancing me from him. In my head, it’s over.

Two months later I walk down a different street, on a new date. This time the talk meanders through tales of our past, gently picking up speed. I begin to tense as I notice the streetlights illuminating a silhouette, hand poised to ask us for help. I remember the other encounter. I see the figures in my head taking position. I am a pace ahead before I realize that he has stopped. I turn back and almost miss the exchange of a coin and the dip of the head, a ghost of a smile. We walk on as if nothing had occurred to break the rhythm.

I am silenced. The people in my head seem unsure of how to react. They shrug, and only one stage whisper can be heard in the silence. He’s trying to make a good impression! But the others glare at him. He is shouted down.

We walk on down the street, heavy with sounds and suddenly bright with lights. I do not immediately notice the mother and son propping their cardboard sign against their legs. Again, like sleight of hand, he dispenses a coin with a shadow of a smile, without missing his turn in our conversation. I begin to glow in the light of his good nature.

But the voices give no rest. Their hum of dissent gets louder. He gives indiscriminately; he has no standards! Where are his values? Does he know what habits he might be encouraging? He is doing a disservice to this city, to humanity! Shoulders squared, faces set, the figures line up as if to embark on a military foray. Ask him! Confront him! they mandate.

I agree, for their arguments have begun to take root, and I too want to hear him justify himself. I bring it up. I express curiosity. I wonder if he can explain. He does. He tells me about the need to breed sensitivity, to show compassion. He tells me that where the money goes is not his concern; he does not want to pass judgement—it is not his place. I respond, devil’s advocate taking hold of me. I mention charity beginning at home; I champion the cause of helping people help themselves. He goes quiet. In his head, it is over.He has no standards!

A long time passes before I notice the irony. I see the steps of what appears to be an intricate dance, positioning myself and repositioning myself in relation to the other. I think long and hard and I wonder why. A natural tendency to represent the underdog? A need to feel that the other person will accept me, even when I do not agree? A symbol of the fact that I see the two sides of a situation and I want its complexity, or perhaps my own, to be represented? I have not yet found the answer, but I am strikingly aware of the paradox.

I have also begun to notice something else. There are times when I pass people soliciting on the street without a second glance. And there are times when I reach out with a coin, to brighten their eyes. Interesting. I wonder what the figures in my head would say about that. But for now, I keep my mind’s eye firmly shut. For I want to make sense of this myself, without the tumult of other voices making themselves heard.