09/18/2014 07:08 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

The Incredible Life Lesson I Learned From My Teenage Daughter

The say that eventually the child becomes the parent. In my mind, that's a situation that comes much much later in life when parents are old and frail and need help getting around. But I recently learned otherwise.

A few weeks ago, I was stopped at a red light with my teen daughter in the car. A panhandler -- a regular at this particular intersection -- approached our car with a sign encouraging me to "Have a nice day" and instinctively my fingers found the cars door's lock button to double-check that the locks were engaged. The little clicking noise assured me they were.

"Why did you just do that, Mama?" asked my daughter, one of the world's last innocents.

"Just to be safe, honey," I told her. Then as we pulled away -- with me giving the panhandler no money but my best "I'm a liberal" smile -- I instructed my daughter to always lock the car doors when she drives. She is a new driver and as quickly as I forgot the panhandler, I remembered the teenage girl in our community who was abducted in her own car last year.

In my defense, it's easy to forget panhandlers. They are part of the landscape here in Southern California, as ubiquitous as our palm trees. We know the ones, at least by sight, who frequent the intersections of our routes to work, to school, to the soccer field. We sidestep them as we walk through our outdoor pedestrian malls. We see them dumpster dive for cans and bottles in the receptacles at the beach while we surf and picnic six feet away.

They are a plentiful lot, these homeless guys, although I've long believed that their issues had little to do with the absence of affordable housing and much more to do with substance abuse and untreated mental and emotional illness. I generally pay them no mind. They are the white noise in my hurried life, always there in the background but rarely intrusive.

Until the "Have a nice day" guy.

My last-of-the-innocents daughter would not let it go.

"What were you afraid of?" she wanted to know. I couldn't answer. No, I didn't really think he would jump in the car, hold a gun to my head, steal my wallet or rape my child. I suppose, technically, any of that could have happened. Any of that could have happened too when I rolled down my window to give the well-dressed attractive guy directions.

No, when I double-checked the locks, I was responding with my gut not my head. It pains me to admit that I am afraid of someone who intellectually I know should be met with empathy, not irrational fear.

I also know that hardship and hard times are not contagious; neither is being laid off from your job, getting divorced or developing cancer. I know all that, and yet I have seen first-hand how people treat others differently because of those things. I had no good answer for my daughter and I felt her disappointment that I had judged someone as a risk simply because they were asking me for pocket change.

Fast forward to last week. I was standing in front of the supermarket feeding my empty recyclable bottles and cans into the machine that gives you a store credit. Since in California we are charged a per-bottle refundable fee and my family goes through bottled drinks at an insane rate, the task of returning our recyclables can be time-consuming. We bring them to the machine by the garbage bag full. And always complicating the task are a few stubborn bottles whose weird shapes give me -- and the machine -- pause.

I was struggling with one such weirdly shaped bottle when the "Have a nice day" panhandler approached me. "Here, let me help you," he said. I jumped because he startled me. And I felt the same knot in my stomach as I had that day in the car, the knot that told my brain to tell my fingers to check the door locks. But here we were, out in the open, just us -- me, the panhandler, and my weirdly shaped bottle.

I stepped back a little to make room for him. Actually, who am I kidding? I stepped back a little to put some distance between us. I glanced around to see who else was in the parking lot who might come to my aid, if ... if what? I even contemplated just running into the store, where I would find the safety of other shoppers.

But I stayed and I handed him the bottle. The panhandler angled it in a way that the machine accepted it and when it spewed out my store credit receipt, he turned and gave it to me. He was not a thief, he did not run off with it. He had been helpful. And he stood there waiting for the inevitable reward.

I told him to keep the store credit, of course. As I replayed the scene in my head a million times later, I was torn between feeling generous and feeling like I was played by a street guy. I remember from my days on the East Coast how the guys by the Holland Tunnel would "clean" your windshield while you sat trapped in traffic and then expect a few coins for their "work." Did Mr. "Have a nice day!" figure his effort would yield him personal gain? And if he did, was that even a bad thing?

I told my last-of-the-innocents daughter about it when I got home. She was brutal.

"Personal gain, Mom? Really? The guy is homeless. Where's your heart?"

My heart has obviously gotten lost along the way, my child. I've covered too many stories where the bad guys win; I've felt too much indifference and gotten inured to it. I feel too distrustful, too suspect, too afraid to see the gift that comes from giving. So yes, my heart went missing. But thanks to you, Sophie, I think I may have found it again.

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