I live and work downtown in San Francisco; my apartment is on the periphery of the seedy Tenderloin district. I encounter beggars every day. I've given a lot of thought to how I respond to the hand outstretched. In this town, you have to.
I do not — I could not — offer money to everyone who asks, but as much as possible I try to at least recognize their humanity. I say “sorry,” or “not today,” or shrug. Sometimes a minute's conversation seems like a greater kindness than the change in my pocket. I try to make eye contact as much as possible.
And sometimes I'll decide that a little change, or a dollar or three, is the right thing to do. Maybe because I want to reward a beggar for asking so politely. Maybe it's someone who looks crazy enough to really need it. Maybe a lean kid on the road looks to have gotten herself into a tight spot, and will soon return home, having learned a valuable lesson. Maybe I just admire a well-executed example of the beggar's craft. The quarter I once paid to have a traffic light changed from red to green was a fair payment for the laugh I got from the offer.
Once a well-dressed stranger confronted me, angry, because I gave five dollars to a heartbreakingly strung-out crack addict. “Don't you realize that man is going to spend that money on drugs?” I told him the truth: I had looked at a man whose body was lying to him, telling him that he was going to die if he didn't get his fix, and lacking the power to free that man of his addiction the best thing I could think to do in that moment was to help relieve his pain a little.
There are a couple of folks I see on the street where I always stop and chat and give them five or ten or even twenty dollars if I have it. Casie is good-hearted and polite, sane enough to really benefit from a little money but far too mad to rejoin the working world; I've been giving him money for a decade now and I'm frankly surprised that he's survived so long. Anthony is ebullient and witty and forever plotting to get his life together; his addictions are stronger than he is, but I admire his cheerful determination.
And yes, of course, I also give money to charities that do a much more systematic job of these things than I can. I'm a soft touch. I know I am.
I want to quote an entire short post from Bluce about a beggar we both have seen downtown.
the test results came up negative
There's a beggar on the corner outside my office. Every morning I see him sitting crosslegged on the curb with a sign that says, “testing for human kindness.”
That sign is so heartwrenching, whenever I walk past him I have a strong urge to kick him in the face.
My point is not that I'm so much more compassionate than Bluce. My point is that I know exactly how he feels.
The city wears you down. I walk twenty minutes from office to home each night, and if only a dozen beggars come to me on that walk, it's been an easy day. I said I try to make eye contact with every one. But that's “I try,” because I fail. Sometimes I'm tired, or preoccupied, or in a hurry, and the beggars are too wretched, or hostile, or otherwise impossible to engage with in my current state.
Buddha compassion is limitless, but my time and money and energy are not limitless, so there are days when I feel fresh out of Buddha compassion. There are days when I hear the voice from my reptilian brainstem that wants to kick a beggar in the face, out of sheer frustration with the whole situation. It's human. The frustration and the compassion both, human.
The thing that's really happening is that Bluce and I are having our circuits blown by our circumstances. Remember I started by saying that I've given a lot of thought to how I respond to beggars because I have to. If I tried to respond completely fresh, a dozen or more times a day, I could not hold it together. Choosing a philosophy for dealing with beggars may be called wisdom, but it could also be called a scar.
This, I think, is the hidden meaning to all those myths where a king or an angel or a god comes to town disguised as a beggar, and judges the whole society on the basis of the aid they do or do not receive. It's not a caprice, where a few random individuals encountered by the faux beggar bear inordinate responsibility on their shoulders. It's not a test of the virtue of the citizens, as though the people of one place would have more kindness in their hearts than the people of another.
No, it's a test of the society as a whole because it's a test of whether that society exhausts the compassion of individuals. If the society systematically cares for its citizens who are poor, or lost, or broken, or mad, then individuals in that society will encounter the open hand rarely, and have the strength to respond with an open heart when they do meet it. If a society lets its needy wander the streets, then its' people's individual compassion will be quickly exhausted.
I'm a person who takes myths seriously. So I worry about the fate of my society.
Update: Vinay Gupta on “selfish helplessness”.