“I feel the lack of financial security in my own life and am reluctant to give to everyone who asks and there are a lot of askers. But I feel bothered, guilty and sad to not offer what I can. I feel sad that their lives have brought them to such a pass. I feel mad that I have to deal with their horrible life situations on top of my own tangle of needs, obligations, and jobs to do. And if I don’t have a cent, which I often don’t, I don’t want to have to say no when I’d prefer to say yes.”
This comment is from my mom (Hi mom! I love you!!) about my last post and I think it’s a pretty common reaction to being faced with a person asking you for help. I empathize with everything she said: the sense of lack, the guilt, the sadness, the anger. You just went to the grocery store, you’ve got a million things to do, and not enough time to do it, and here comes someone to remind you that there are people who are hungry. He can’t help it that he reminds you of this problem, for him he’s just one guy hoping that another person will act on some sense of mercy, or generosity, or commonness. But all the same, it’s an uninvited reminder of suffering.
I’ve thought about this a lot and I though it might be useful to entertain a couple scenarios. Time freezes, you are confronted with this situation and you have a few moments to consider different courses of action and see how they feel.
Option 1. Walk away- You’re uncomfortable, a little resentful, so you walk away without saying anything, or mumbling something like “sorry, I can’t.” When I consider this reaction I feel:
- Like a liar because I know I have some money in the bank, even if it’s only $20 I could totally buy this guy a soda or a snack.
- I feel kind of tight and scrooge-like because I just acted like what is mine is mine and I don’t share.
- I feel guilty because I empathize with him. I don’t think where he is now is entirely his fault, and even if he was who hasn’t made mistakes? I don’t think making mistakes means people should suffer in really terrible ways, like starving in the midst of abundance and selfish people. That’s got to be a cruel and unusual punishment.
- I feel a sense of sadness, I feel like he should be taken care of, I wish we had more of a community, and I feel like I could have done or said something that at least acknowledged his dignity and humanity.
Option 2. I go back into the store and buy him something after asking what his preference is for food and drink. I come back out and hand him some roasted chicken in a carton and a bottle of orange juice. He thanks me with a big smile, and I can sense that he is touched and deeply grateful. We’re looking each other in the eyes and having a real genuine moment of recognition. I feel:
- Happy. In this moment I am totally present to this person and have been able to do something that is meaningful to him in his life. I know that when I do something like that he feels nourished in more than one way, and I can feel the radiance of a person who knows his dignity is recognized and honored.
- I feel free to move on from this interaction because it’s complete. His need for now has been met, he feels grateful and I feel grateful too, because I’ve been given an opportunity to truly give from my heart.
- I feel expansive, I feel like the world isn’t so bad after all, I realize that that may have been one of the most profound moments of my day. If I do nothing else, I did something.
- Life may be hard, but in this moment it is made easier because we’ve shared both the difficulty and the beauty, together. What I gave wasn’t mine anyway, so I’ve merely returned something to it’s rightful owner.
This is just two scenarios, there are others, but given the choice of spending $5 and ending up in scenario 2 with all that, it has become an easy choice for me most of the time. I encourage you to actually entertain different options in your body, see how they feel in your body when considering them, and try to find the option that feels best to you. chances are if you do what feels best to you, most open and positive, this situation will start to feel like an opportunity, not an energetic drain. Anyway.
Often when I give money or food to people who are on the street or asking for help, other people ask me if I think it helps, if it makes a difference, if there aren’t better ways to make more systemic change, or if I think it “makes the problem worse”. Most likely however, he actually didn’t ask me to deal with his life situation, fix the homeless “problem,” or save the world. He asked me for something like money or food. But apparently it is very difficult for us to help people or even be asked to help people, without taking on some massive analysis of the entire system. Now I do love me some systems analysis, and I sure used to love talking about how the system should be and all the ways that I would run the world different. But I guess what I’ve been trying to get at is that those questions are abstractions, and this person is real. So sure, change the world, fix the systems, or create new ones, but don’t neglect Mr. right-in-front-of-your-face over here while you go gallivanting off on your noble save the world crusade. And please don’t neglect him, talk a lot of talk, and do absolutely nothing having satisfied yourself with all that hot air conversation about how big problems should be fixed.
If a person asks for help and you offer to go to Washington, lobby congressmen, and come back in few years when the law is changed, they’re going to look at you like you’re the crazy one; because they asked you for some food, not to rectify the flaws of Western Civilization so that their life wouldn’t be so hard. So pay attention to what a person asks you, and what your mind does with the uncomfortable chain of realizations, awarenesses, justifications, excuses, and questions that then arise.
While it is important to change systems and to go to the root of the issues we face, or to create new systems from a vision of a future where everyone is taken care of, it is also important to look in the eyes of the person in front of you who is saying “I am a human and I am hungry. I lost my job and my family is staying in a hotel, can you please help me feed them tonight?”
While seeing and acknowledging his presence may raise the spectre of larger problems about which we feel little control, if this person in front of me is reduced to my own personal reminder of things I feel powerless to change then I deny him his humanity and me my own power to make small change that is concrete, relevant, and potentially transformative.
I think we’d all feel a lot less guilty if we said no only when the answer was truly no and offered what we could during these hard times. Hard times shared by many are easier, and we emerge from them hopefully with an expanded sense of what we’re capable of and what kind of people we are. I want to emerge having offered generously of myself in a way that actually lessened the hardship on other people, I want to share the burden; I want to stretch my giving beyond my current comfort zone, as an act of faith and love that I believe does have the power to shift problems larger than tonight’s hunger.
Those is my two cents…