A totally unrelated pic for this post, but here are “3 in a tree”
A few weeks ago a man told me he never gives to poor people asking for money. He did that once, many years ago, bought lunch for a man begging on the street. “I felt good for a few minutes after,” he told me, “felt like I’d done my good deed for the day, but then I realized I’d simply made that man successful at asking for money. I hadn’t given him a reason to do anything else. Now I only give to people who are already pursuing their goals, who are already successful.”
He’s not alone in this practice. Marketing operates on this principle: success breeds success. When you need support for an organization, you don’t start with your needs; you start with the stories of change, growth, transformation. Then you talk about need, only then.
Sometimes I wonder if those begging on street corners understand this. Many, when you stop and talk with them, tell you they were successful in their past. Last week one man—sitting out on a day when the high was in single digits—told me he’d been a stock broker, he’d scored incredibly well on the test stock brokers have to take, he’d lost it all paying for his mother’s cancer treatment bills.
Was he trying to convince me? Trying to tell me the cash I’d pushed into his mittened hands wasn’t wasted, was being spent on someone “worth it”? Or was he trying to convince himself?
Maybe a bit of both?
Here’s what struck me, as I drove away from him still sitting on the corner: I wasn’t so much giving to him as paying him, paying him for a very important service he was providing me. As a plumber repairs my pipes and a lawyer prepares my will, this man reminds me of several important things. His very presence on the side of the road speaks truth to me. Take away my background, the economic stability of my childhood home and neighborhood, the education I was encouraged and enabled to pursue, the mind I’ve been given to study and do work that pays well enough, my health… Put me in different circumstances, and I, too, could be sitting on the side of the road or, as I tried to convince him, in a shelter till the weather broke. His presence reminds me of my frailty, of the frailty of humanity collectively—we are all like grass, easily withered, easily chopped low, easily blown away.
He, sitting out in all weathers, enduring the disregard of so many, is doing much harder work than I, and it is work that, in one way or another, must be done. Without reminders of our innate weakness, we assume we have actually earned and deserved the good we enjoy. And then we lose gratitude, humility, love…
His presence leads me to prayer, to connection with those near and far away, with those in need in my city, those in need in my world. His presence on the corner reminds me of Aleppo, of Sudan, of North Korea, of prisoners and persecuted Christians, of those lonely or in sorrow, of my friend who just lost her father. His presence reminds me we are all in need. We are all connected. John Donne’s words come to mind: No man is an island,/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me,/Because I am involved in mankind,/And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/It tolls for thee.
The cash I pressed into his hand now seems a very small price to pay for all that.
*Several of the links above are to articles related to homelessness and cold weather: one deals with reasons some homeless people sleep in the cold rather than go to shelters; another suggests ways you can help (and has hotline numbers in major cities to call if you see someone sleeping outside in dangerously cold weather).
*Other links are to Scriptures that deal with our weakness–and our reliance on Christ!