Rich Woman, Poor Woman

I was rude just now to a beggar. I was leaving the library on my way to lunch and there she was, standing at the bottom of the stairs, holding the hand of a child probably no more than five years of age. As I saw her move towards me, I knew what she was going to ask, as, indeed, she did, very politely: "Do you have any money to help us get some food?" My usual response would have been to shake my head sadly and lie, "No, sorry, I can't help." But this time, weakened perhaps by my own hunger or--just perhaps--by the work that I have been doing with the books of Hours, I didn't. Instead, I snapped at her: "Yes, of course, I do," and started to pull out my change purse. It took a moment because I had forgotten which pocket I had stashed it in (coat or sweater), during which she began thanking me, still very politely. At which point I snarled: "I give hundreds of dollars every year to the local soup kitchen [true, I just made my annual donation last week]. Why don't you go there?" Having at last located my change purse (a gorgeous little red beaded flower thing that I bought down on State Street when Marshall Field's was still Marshall Field's*), I grabbed the first bundle of bills that I could and shoved them at her, hoping that I hadn't in that gesture given my own lunch money away. I didn't want to stand there counting out dollars; I just wanted to get away. And so I did, to the sound of her continued thanks and my screaming conscience.

Here's the question. Which response is worse: my usual polite refusal to help or my rudeness covering the gift of actual money? I don't really know. I feel just as bad now, having given the money, as I usually do when I refuse. And yet, refusing politely--after all, beggars are people, too--does not typically drive me to blog. I'm full now, having eaten my lunch. Did the few dollars (I don't actually know how many) I gave her make enough for her to buy something for herself and her child? Or is she still out there, begging from rich people like me, hoping to get enough by later this afternoon to manage a meal? She could--as I told her, if not with the best spirit--go to the soup kitchen. Does she not know about it? If she knows about it, does she for some reason not want to go there? Is it really my fault that she is hungry when indeed I do give what I can to help feed strangers like her, if not as much as I spend on feeding my own family, then a considerable amount, enough to ensure that I can't, for example, go shopping at Macy's this weekend and buy that new sweater I saw when I was there last Saturday looking for a present to give to another stranger through the women's shelter that our church supports?

I am not trying to make myself out to be more charitable (in the sense of monetary giving) than I actually am. I don't know if I am, on average, more or less generous than the other people in our neighborhood. What I do know is that, however much I give, it is never enough. There are beggars everywhere in our city, usually, like the woman I met this afternoon, wholly polite, standing patiently by their cardboard signs or trying to catch somebody's eye so as to be able to make their plea. Even if I gave every beggar who asked me for help a minimum of five dollars, it would not be enough to buy them more than the next meal. And even if I gave away all that I own, I could not pay more than a handful, maybe a dozen, a minimum (i.e. enough to eat) wage, and then, only for a year, after which we would all be hungry. So do I refuse politely and give nothing? Or do I snarl, knowing how inadequate whatever I give will be, and give anyway? Perhaps the more telling question is, why do I snarl? What, exactly, do I see when someone approaches me, asking for help? Okay, not just help: money. I am more than prepared to give directions or first aid. Even to intervene, as I did once in New York, if someone is being attacked. But ask me for money, and I bristle.

I need to think about this.

*You're supposed to be thinking, "How shallow of her to mention her purse." I felt shallow taking the pittance I was about to hand out from such a gorgeous little trifle that still cost more than I was willing to give to the woman. What should I carry my money in?

[Image for meditation: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, MS 348, fol. 73, opening image for Office of the Dead, showing the Rich Man feasting while the dogs lick the Poor Man's sores]


  1. I agonize over this, too. I have a personal policy of not giving money to individuals, but everytime someone asks, it reminds me to reexamine my giving to organizations that provide support and services to the homeless. For many years I simply walked past. After reading an essay about how people feel "invisible" and devalued when they are ignored, in such situations, I started trying to at least make eye contact and say "good morning" or something to acknowledge I see them, even if I am not saying "yes."

  2. Yep, I am sure everyone struggles with this one. Especially during this season in which we are all giving gifts and even trying to think of what to buy for people who already have so much (i.e. everyone in our family, right?!) I have given little and felt embarrassed about that, I have given more than little (i.e. the average change in the pocket) and felt good about the "God bless you" that was said by the receiver, and I have been rude and felt shitty about that. But I have also been rude and dismissive before and felt nothing, just thinking "the world will always be made up out of "haves" and "have nots". When Katrina hit New Orleans, Robert and I gave more in a single amount than we ever had before. It was still a puny amount compared to what was needed, but for us this was actually substantial. It made us feel slightly better.... I wanted to give our spare guest-house to a family in need, but then we didn't...(why not, out of "fear" or the burden??? Embarrassing to admit but probably right.) Later then we found out that the majority of the moneys donated to the Red Cross then did not even reach the people who needed it, but went to the failed administration and organization of the aid-institution. (So maybe we should have given shelter to one or two people.)Same with the aid for the Tsunami victims. I know, this doesn't compare to the local soup-kitchen... but maybe sometimes it is better to give to the individual. We are only 1 person, 1 soul, if we try to make 1 other soul a little happier each day, maybe that is sufficient. Just think if everyone did that.


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