The Charity Dilemma

A couple of  years ago I went to visit my mother in a hospital. Just as I parked my car, a young guy approached to me with a bouquet of wild flowers. He told me that he lives alone with his grandmother, and that he doesn’t have any money to buy food. He offered me to buy one flower for twenty shekels. He didn’t look particularly miserable or hungry, and there was something defying in his attitude, as if he dared me to believe him. I thought to myself that bringing a flower to my mother would be a nice gesture, so I  got out my wallet, and paid for the most expansive flower I have ever bought.

During my stay in the hospital, my mind was preoccupied by this episode. I felt that my response was inadequate, and that I missed an opportunity to give this guy more than my money. On my way back from the hospital the guy was still standing in the same place. I approached to him and told him that “I had no way of knowing whether his story is true or not. But for whatever reason he needs the money, instead of  selling his melodramatic story, maybe he would be better off simply selling flowers to hospital visitors”. The guy smiled at me, but said nothing.

My thoughts kept coming back to this episode for several days. I wasn’t too impressed by my own behavior, but even more so, I was intrigued by the dilemma that I faced, when confronted with the request for help. I didn’t want to fall prey to a professional beggar, a small-time scammer, looking to make some quick money, but I also didn’t want to turn my shoulder to someone in a real need. I didn’t want to be fooled, but didn’t want to be insensitive either. What was I to do?

When someone requests our money, he becomes a salesman, even if all he sells is his wretchedness. Using a mix of persuasion, pressure and pity, the beggar forces us to make a choice – either to buy our way out of this uncomfortable situation, and possibly feel cheated afterwards, or to ignore the plead, and be seen heartless in our own eyes. The ‘assertive beggar’ puts us in a lose-lose situation.

Is the beggar to blame for being pushy?  Surely not, people do whatever they have to, to get by. And how can we judge them? What do we know about their life, and the chain of events that brought them to be doing this? But in the same time, that doesn’t mean that we should be receptive to their manipulation. Because if we are, we are robbed of much more than our money – we are robbed of our good will.

Charity is meaningful to the giver only when it is given out freely, out of good will, true compassion or on some benevolent impulse. It’s rewarding only when it is an act of free will, an empathetic reply to a silent cry of help. It should be ignited by compassion of the giver, and replied with a gratitude of the receiver.

But when the charity is extorted, emotionally blackmailed or otherwise demanded, it loses its deeper meaning. The receiver becomes a seller, the giver becomes a buyer, and the act of charity becomes a transaction. Any time we are cornered into giving a charity, we become increasingly more cynical and suspicious. We avoid eye contact with the homeless, we steer clear from the blind, we shut our car windows, we lock our doors. We don’t want to see misery, because we don’t believe it anymore.

These days, whenever I am approached and asked for money, I subtly refuse. Instead, I try to notice those that sit or lie on the side of the road. A beggar that keeps a dignified posture and acknowledges his gratitude with a silent nod, a musician too absorbed in his playing to notice the street noise, a homeless smothered by life, with a vacant, mindless  look in his eyes.

10 Replies

  • People are getting numb for such things especially in megalopolises i think.. When i come to Moscow for instance i notice i'm feeling such a tiny unit of this huge mass and somehow i get indifferent and pushy and i just want to be less disturbed, that's all i care for. Such places are unhealthy. There is nothing like feeling of belonging to the community people have to take care of.
    As for the charity my personal choice is to contribute to the trusted organization which i know do their part to solve social problems. And in general I believe more in 'teaching to fish than to giving fish to hungry' cause problems are too deep.
    Thanks for the great post Mike. It's not only the question of values that generosity is not as common nowadays. The system is so corrupted that it ceases altruistic impulses. But despite the fact we're suspicious and not always willing to give to beggars or such (which is in most cases reasonable) we can find so many other ways to help the needy.

  • You are right. Crowded cities kill any sense of compassion and personal
    responsibility for others. Alienation is so great, that you view everyone
    who you don't know as a stranger that doesn't deserve your attention or

    I think that donation to organizations you care about and trust is great.
    You know that your money go into trusted hands, and that it will serve some
    good purpose. But what should you do when you face some very real and
    immediate misery, which is right in front of you. Can you easily ignore it,
    by saying to yourself “I already donated elsewhere”?

    Can we ignore the beggars on the streets as a nuisance? By giving him a
    coin, you don't really help him that much – but the act itself – making an
    eye contact with him, putting this coin in his hat, shows that you notice
    and you care. And that may count as much as the money you give.

  • If you mean physically challenged ones, yes it is a hard subject. (thanks god in our countries it's not business like it is in India to make an army of handicapped beggars).. But if i met someone like the guy in the hospital i would have never given him anything. I took seasonal work in a fish factory when i urgently needed money, and that's not long after 3 months in a hospital. I never understand how people with two hands can't earn something for living. And somehow i dont' understand how one should live life not to have any friends to take care of you. Of course life is too complicated, it's often not their fault. But yes, i made it easier for myself to share the other way. Maybe because where i live i see much more people in difficult situations.

  • Hi Saryuna.
    I think you are over generalizing.
    I agree with you that young healthy people who are not handicapped,
    should go and work – if they cant with their brain then with their hands.

    However, there are some people in our community with genuinely difficult stories –
    Old people who cant work, and have no family to support them.
    People with sick children, who need the money for medicine.

    I think that part of living in a community, and not in a cave alone is the ability to rely on people in case of an emergency.

    Maybe I'm naive, but i believe that there are some unfortunate people out there, and I support helping them if I can.

    And btw…not so much because I pity them, but because when time comes and life
    shows ME the “fuck you” sign (which to some degree happens to many of us),
    I would like to know there are good people out there(even strangers), who will not leave me to suffer.

  • ומייק…אם יורשה לי אופטופיק קצר…:)
    עוגי ועזרא מרחוב סומסום מסבירים מה ההבדל בין כאן ושם בדיאלוג פילוסופי גאוני

    מאוד מזכיר את החיים שלי

  • another cool one 🙂
    I feel exactly like Bentz while preparing for the GMAT.

    Sesame street is the mirror of reality.

  • This is the most empathic and compassonate I have ever heard you. You have always had a tension between somewhat selfish, self-serving beleifs and a sencetive and considerate character. It's great to see you trying to settle this tension, and growing in the process.

  • I think we need to segment the beggars into several categories, in order to have a clearer picture.
    The first category is the physically disabled, for whom begging for money is the only way to survive. You see these people mostly in poor countries. In Israel you don't see them because the state provides some basic level of financial support, and the rest is completed by the supporting family, if there is one.

    The second category is the 'cynical beggars' – these are people that view it as an easy way to make quick money without working hard. For them, their 'clients' are suckers, that can milked for money. The main reason they don't work, is because they are lazy. Many of the 'assertive beggars' in Israel belong to this category. They clearly don't deserve our money.

    But there is also a third category – the degraded people. These are people, who while not physically or mentally disabled, are psychologically unable to do much to improve their life. For whatever reason they came to be this way, be it drugs, alcohol, childhood abuse, or a personal tragedy, they feel incapable of turning their life around. They perceive themselves as complete failures, unable or maybe even undeserving of changing their fate. I would say that most of the beggars we see in Israel are exactly this case. With low self-esteem, and often without supporting environment, they are unable to pull themselves out of this mess. Our money won't do much to change their course of life, it will only sustain them.

  • I think that there is a very simple way to test the authenticity of the request.
    Unfortunately this method works only after the man is given money.

    If the man is a crook, the response you will usually see is, well…none.
    the whole transaction is very digital, and he is dying to get out of there and deliver his well prepared monologue to the next sucker.

    However, if I sense an emotion – any kind – be it gratitude or better yet hatred,
    i know I did the right thing.

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