There was a time when I did not give money to peddlers and beggars and people on the street. It’s not that I was not generous. I was and I am. It’s just that I didn’t trust that the money I gave them individually would help improve their lives. A walk with my Dad and an experience years later brought me to understand the act of giving and receiving are a continuous process in the flow of one’s life.
Many years ago, I accompanied Dad on a walk around the block. I always enjoyed the time alone with him as we would delve into some form of philosophy that shaped our lives. We walked in and out of alleys just chitchatting, until we came across a tired looking woman with a baby in her arms asking for charity. Without hesitation, Dad reached into his pocket, took out paper currency and kindly handed it to her. “Why?” I asked. “How do you know that woman isn’t going to spend the money on things other than food? She could be using the child as bait for sympathy,” I continued. “Instead of begging at the corner and making an easy career out of this, she should be working and doing something with her life.”
“My dear girl,” said Dad, “Do you know what has brought her to the streets? She may not have had the choices or the capabilities to stay afloat in the social structure. Perhaps she got stuck in the flow of life. Perhaps the opportunities for her were very limited. Perhaps she was outcast. Perhaps misunderstood. Perhaps neglected. Perhaps she doesn’t know any better. Perhaps she was born in poverty.” And with a nostalgic shake of his head, he said, “And, do you know the state of mind associated with loss of dignity and humiliation that comes with poverty and desperation? You do not, dear girl, because you haven’t worn her shoes. I see degradation and humiliation in her eyes, and when I give her money, I see in her eyes a grateful heart. That’s all the reasoning I need.” Then he added with his usual huge smile, “And if, for whatever reason, she has made this a career of her own choosing, like all careers, they need a boost.”
Dad’s desire to help unconditionally was genuinely rooted in recognition of his human solidarity with those who were suffering, regardless of their circumstances.
Flash forward years from that day. I had been up for two nights straight tending to my seriously ill infant daughter who was in need of medication. I looked a mess in baggy sweatpants, a faded frayed T-shirt with drool stains on my shoulders, disheveled hair and eyes that screamed ‘exhausted’. I looked like crap. I felt like crap. All I could think of in that state of mind was to ease my child’s discomfort. I drove to a nearby drugstore with my baby (since I had no one with whom to leave her), and after what seemed like an eternity at the pharmacy, I picked up the meds and made a weak dash to the car and realized that I had locked the keys in the car. I found a pay phone, looked up the number to a car locksmith in the directory of a phone book only to discover that I did not have any change to place the call. (For those of you wondering, at the time, mobile phones were not yet common and credit/debit cards were not an option with which to pay.) With a sick infant hanging on my weary shoulder, I was desperate. With great self-conscious embarrassment, I grudgingly approached people in the parking lot for a dime or quarter. Many odd looks, quite a few rejections, then, one kind man gave me the dime. He must have seen gratitude in my eyes because he then took out a dollar and squeezed it in my hand saying, “Here, buy some milk for the child.” Painful humiliation, loss of dignity, and degradation. My eyes welled with tears. At that moment, in the eyes of a stranger, I was no different from that poor, tired woman with child of years ago asking for charity on a street corner.
Today, I give. I give to persons in need in recognition of my human solidarity with those who are suffering, regardless of their circumstances. Because for whatever reason they are on the street, for whatever wretched circumstances brought them there in the flow of life, they will never lose the ability to be gracious for the “monetary” gifts they receive… a lesson I will keep in my heart.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING, from my grateful heart to yours.