There’s a lot of context you’re missing when you interact with a panhandler. And some of it is inside you.
Working in D.C. you see a lot of panhandlers. All along my commute even as early as Northern Virginia I see a gallery of people asking for help in one-way or another. All of them certainly need help, monetarily and certainly spiritually, but I wonder how they will use the money they collect. Will they use their money for good or ill? Will they use it for food or to lose themselves in alcohol or drugs? In the brief exchanges I have, there is so much context I’m missing.
Because I’m a big softie, I don’t discriminate and I give a couple of dollars to everyone who asks. Perhaps I’m just a weak enabler but I like to think I give them something more important than the money: kindness and recognition of their human dignity. A few I even talk with regularly. My regular behavior with these panhandlers has at least the pretense of philanthropy in the broadest sense, showing a love for our fellow man. The story I am about to tell is what philanthropy is not.
I bought my lunch at a Subway near my office, and was walking back to the office near St. Matthew’s cathedral, I passed several panhandlers who make the steps of the cathedral their regular hang out. I gave my usual few dollars to each of them. One of them, unsatisfied with my contribution asked for my lunch in jest. I froze. I was very hungry and in a rush. I knew that giving him my lunch now would mean that I wouldn’t eat until much later. As I began with much hesitance to offer up my sandwich. He laughed and said that he didn’t need the sandwich. Instead he asked if he could have some more money to pay for his transit across town. Relieved I was keeping my sandwich; I gave him some money and began to walk away.
One of the other panhandlers approached me and said that he would gladly take the sandwich. His layers of clothes suggested he had been outside in the cold for a long time and that he planned on continuing to be. His eyes looked hungry and suggested a desperation that edged out the shame that keeps most of us from asking so frankly for help. Defeated, I handed over my lunch.
I left the Cathedral steps furious that he had been so shameless to ask for my lunch. Why couldn’t he have just been grateful what I had given him? What right did he have to think he could ask me for my sandwich? After all, I had paid for it, I was hungry, and I had so graciously already given him something that he didn’t deserve.
When my initial anger subsided, I realized how profoundly un-philanthropic my actions had been. I had not given any of those men the few dollars for their own well-being.
I had only been giving money to them to feel good about myself and to ease my own conscience.
After all, if I had been born into their lives and made a few different decisions, couldn’t I end up where they are now? With a few dollars and a few words, I could assure myself that I was doing something, that I was a good person, and that I was not part of the problem. When I was asked for more than I wanted, I quickly became irritated and angry. If I had been motivated by love for my fellows, this would not have been my reaction.
Love often demands sacrifice. True love is self-forgetting. When love offers something up and is asked for more, love gives it even more gladly.
If we are not motivated by love, our giving of alms or aid to those in need cannot be called truly charitable or philanthropic.
Is it better to help those in need, even if the motivation is less than pure, than not to help at all? Of course. However, there is nothing special or praiseworthy about giving something that is of little consequence to us. In fact, I’d wager that we are at our most philanthropic when we are not thinking of where our actions come from at all but the person in need.
I hesitate to give an example of true philanthropy, if only because I’m afraid the bar will appear so high as to make any attempt at it worthless. Nevertheless, I offer up St. John Maximovitch, a 20th century saint in the Orthodox Church. A rigorous ascetic who rarely ate or slept, he would constantly pray for the sick and the suffering. He would pray over the infirm at all hours, and founded an orphanage while he was bishop of Shanghai. He was often spotted walking around barefoot because he would take the shoes off his feet and give them to those in need. Here was a man who could not bear that his fellow man would go shoeless so terribly that he would give up his own. In order to do this, one must be a philanthropist in the most literal sense: truly a lover of men.
I must confess I’ve never given up my shoes, but we can give our time, something St. John Maximovitch certainly gave. Now, when I walk by that panhandler in northern Virginia, I stop for a minute and talk to him. I hear about how he hates to wear his dentures. His teeth were kicked out after getting mugged. He points out that you can tell if the weather is going to be warm and cloudless if you can see the contrails left by planes. “Now you know how a homeless guy can tell the weather,” he says laughing. Though I did not spare a sole, I saw a bit of soul bared. If the contrails were any indication, it would be a good day.
Nathaniel Torrey is the editor of the Work channel at Humane Pursuits. He has been trying to live up to his namesake his entire life, but has only started in earnest since May 2013. He is a graduate from St. John’s College and works at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.