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A Tale of One City and the People With Nothing

Choose to help those in need and be truly happy

People. They might just as easily be from your city but I’ll speak of mine.

Dickens wrote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

To some this line is confusing. But others are already forming an argument in their head about what he meant by it. Hold on to those thoughts for a moment and read the rest:

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

The Times

Can all of those conditions exist simultaneously? Well, yes they can. In fact, they do. Now is the best of times, and now is the worst of times. When I drive through the downtown streets of my city, by the river, near the parks, around city hall, I see the worst. It is apparent and inescapable. In contrast, I probably fall into the “best” category.

Not the best or worst of people, mind you. That’s not what he said, and that’s not what I think either. Dickens didn’t say “we” were the best, or “they” were the worst. He said it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The implication being that it was the best or the worst of times for someone. And to be honest, I should be included in the group having the best of times. Everything in my life isn’t perfect, but I can’t complain.

Choose to help those in need and be truly happyI have a job and a family, a house and a car. Where I will find my next meal is not a question in my mind. I have some money in the bank if I need it for an emergency or for fun. Perhaps most importantly, I am in complete control of my faculties. My life is pretty good.

Then there’s that other group. This is the group we kind of ignore when we are in the midst of the best of times, even though they are having the worst of times right under our noses. They sleep under bridges, in the bushes, or squat behind warehouses. It is their winter of despair. They can’t shower every day and might not even have a change of clothes. Food comes at the grace of others. Some are slaves to drugs. Others battle mental illness. We refer to them as the “homeless.”

With Nothing Before Them

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities to contrast London and Paris during the French Revolution. If you don’t know, the French were the ones having the worst of times back then. More than likely someone could easily write a similar book about two cities from our present time.

But I don’t get too emotional about cities.

How would it be contrasting two people, instead? Envision yourself in your present circumstances as one of the two. What lies before you? Perhaps you have a job, or a prospect, at least dreams. You know that if you complete that particular class, you will finally graduate. Or you may have finally interviewed for the job you always wanted. Maybe you already have the job you always wanted.

No matter where you are, I am willing to bet you can see multiple paths in front of you. Each path will lead you somewhere, to places you dream about or can easily envision. There are obstacles, no doubt, but you know that if you work hard enough, you can hurdle those. You are not alone on your journey either. Friends, family, and acquaintances will help you along. This is Dickens’ “spring of hope.”

Choose to help those in need and be truly happyBut now the contrast.

Imagine you are someone different, one of those in the “winter of despair” instead. What if you didn’t have anyone to help you, no friends or family? Perhaps you can’t read. Maybe you have become addicted to drugs and can no longer reason your way through basic situations. Do you have a mental illness, untreated or undiagnosed, that makes it quite literally impossible to manage your life?

With the understanding that these are just a few of the many potential challenges that people face, what now lies before you in this condition? Do you still have the spring of hope in front of you? Or is it the nothing of winter?

The Spring of Hope

I can not speak for every person facing poverty in the world. More accurately, I can’t speak for any of them, because I don’t know them or their hearts. Many people say (I have said it myself), and it is probably true, that some people are where they are because of their own actions. They made a choice that resulted in their present circumstances.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world that hasn’t screwed up something they really wanted by doing something ill-advised. That’s human nature. So how can that hypothesis then justify ignoring a person sitting on the street corner who is in need?

Having made a mistake in their past shouldn’t exclude them from help now. When you’re standing next to one of the rougher people of the world, it’s pretty easy to suddenly feel pristine. But that false pride is a mistake.

People without hope need a helping hand first before they can get moving again. They might not even know how to start to get themselves going. It’s easy enough when you’re living through the best of times to just shout advice, but that might not be very helpful in the end. Instead, what people need is someone who is invested and committed to each individual. The problems homeless people face cannot be categorized into a single catch-all, and therefore neither can the solutions.

Choose to help those in need and be truly happyBut hope can end despair, just as spring ends every winter. Those of us who have the ability can strengthen another person in their weakness. There is a cost to that, of course, but I think the results are worth the costs, not to mention the improvement it brings to our own life. I have written about that topic before.

The Tale of One City

The dichotomy presented by Dickens’ famous opening line is far more poignant in the context of people than as a contrast between two disparate politically misaligned cities. Our tale of two cities occurs in just one city, our own city. Here, the best and the worst of times pass each other daily. Spring and Winter cohabit, with Spring diligently pretending not to see Winter and Winter desperately trying to pierce the choking fog of despair.

At the conclusion of A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton faces a choice. He could continue his own (somewhat) selfish existence or take the place of Charles Darnay, his look-alike friend trapped in the Bastille and condemned to die. In prison, Sydney would inevitably face certain death at the footstool of the Guillotine. He chooses to free Darnay and take his place.

Carton’s famous closing line is “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Why does he say this? Because the sacrifice, though real, is less valuable to him than the new life he has granted to his friend in need. This feeling of satisfaction through self-sacrifice can only be truly understood through direct experience. You have to live it to get it.

Which Way Will You Go?

We all face a choice—daily we see those who stand looking out on a future of nothing, in their winter of despair. We live with the promise of everything. Will we continue to avert our eyes from these people around us, those who are experiencing the worst of times? Or can we follow in Sydney Carton’s allegorical footsteps and do a better thing than we have done before?

Choose to help those in need and be truly happyPoverty, homelessness, is not a simple problem. It is not a small problem. There are no quick fixes. Perhaps you understand that and you just don’t know what to do. There is help for that.

I learned something this week from Melissa Englebright who posted a very personal video (she is one of the founders of Redding Bridges to Housing). What I heard her say was to just do something. Failing all else if you can simply acknowledge that the person you see on the street corner is a person instead of “homeless” then that is a start for you. Let the rest follow.

There are people that need help, and what they need is beyond their own power. But we, we who live in the best of times, have what they need within our power. And we must remember, the people in need are not “somewhere,” they are here. And they are not “them,” they are individuals. They are people.

I speak of my own city, but it could just as easily be yours.


Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. sherisown says:

    Wow! This is beautifully written. Thank you! If I was a high school English teacher, I would make this a compulsory reading. Well done. You’ve given us all something very important to think about

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