Category Archives: ethics

is it good to give to beggars?

 

 

 

And to him who wishes to bring a judgment against you, so he may take away your tunic, give him your cloak as well; And whoever presses you into service for one mile, go with him for two. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not turn away from one who wishes to borrow from you.

 

— The Sermon on the Mount; Matthew 5:40-42

 

The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press)

 

 
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. …”

 

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”

 

 

 

 

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According to an email I received recently from a close relative consumed by hatred, I am “totally selfish and self-absorbed.”

Really?

I just went to the corner mailbox this evening (Friday, January 11, 2019) in the cold to mail a couple of letters for my wife. A middle aged woman who looked cold and frazzled seemed to want to get my attention. It seemed hard for her to speak up. I heard her saying something about needing some change or a dollar, if I could spare it, to get something to eat. I reached into my wallet and there was a twenty dollar bill at the top. I gave it to her.

The twenty dollar bill came to hand. I didn’t think about it. I knew if I gave her more than she expected she would be able to at least afford something (a cup of coffee nowadays costs nearly two dollars) and would be, hopefully, slightly encouraged. Reflecting upon the amount I had given her, I thought to myself, what will my having twenty dollars less in cash on hand mean to me a day or two from now? Her misery or desperation far outweighs any aggravation she or any panhandler might cause.

 

 

 

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Beggars and panhandlers are a fact of life for most people, I would suspect. Particularly city dwellers.

I occasionally find myself asking myself what is the best way to respond to or deal with them. Should one give? Are they to be regarded as nuisances?

My rule of thumb has been to be guided by instinct. Often, I will notice a beggar off to the side who can easily be ignored. I tend to never give to subway panhandlers (or buskers, for that matter).

But, there are frequent occasions when I feel compelled to give. Often, this happens when I make eye contact with a beggar. Occasionally, I will be walking down the street lost in thought when I half notice a beggar and walk a few steps past him or her, then turn around, walk back a few steps, and give. It is often the case that I do this when I am in a good mood and am inclined to count my blessings. At such times, I find myself saying to myself, if God is bestowing blessings upon me, if the world is my oyster, it behooves me to try and share some of these good feelings with another.

On such occasions, I usually, besides giving, try to briefly say something affirmative to the other person and to show by a word or two or a look that I respect them and appreciate their thanks, as a way of emphasizing our common humanity.

There are also times when I am not in a good mood and regard someone importuning me for a handout as a nuisance. Feeling churlish, I ignore the beggar and try to avoid eye contact. In such a mood, I feel, kindness by me would not be propitious. It’s sort of equivalent to saying that one shouldn’t give if one can’t do it in the right sprit. (A Japanese-American nurse in a hospital where I was working as an orderly once said something similar to me. Even when doing something as routine as dispensing medication, she said, she felt it had to be done in the right spirit to be effective.)

As noted by me on another post on this site, “My Boyhood,” I used to Christmas shop for my immediate family in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was around eleven or twelve years old. I put a lot of thought into buying gifts for my family, but it was on a very limited budget. I probably spent five or six dollars at the most.

Once, while shopping during the Christmas season, a panhandler asked me for money and I gave him something like 85 cents. It seemed then like a large amount to give and represented a substantial portion of the pocket change I had left. But I felt compelled to do it. I thought it was my Christian duty and that it was better to give than receive.

I had a similar experience in Manhattan once when I was in my early twenties. I was walking back to work on East 18th Street during lunch hour on a freezing cold day. I was on a very limited budget. I was doing alternative service work as a conscientious objector and was very low paid. I was always straining to conserve my resources; it was hard to live in Manhattan on my salary.

As I was about to enter the headquarters of my employer, I noticed a middle aged man approaching. I can’t recall what he said, but it was clear that he badly needed a handout. His teeth were chattering, he was so cold; he looked desperate and utterly forlorn. I gave him two dollars, which represented a goodly portion of my pocket money.

Nowadays, that would not seem like a lot, but I recall feeling that it was a lot then, but that I had to do it. I felt a strong moral imperative, the same Christian imperative. And, I felt that, overall, it was the right thing and would prove, over time, to have been so.

 

 

 

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It is my practice nowadays to try to be charitable and helpful in various ways to people whom I encounter in the City. I feel that it is a matter of karma, and I often think of how often people have done little things for me, nice things.

I was walking in Brooklyn a year or so ago. I had just purchased something or other. I think it was electronic equipment. As I was crossing a street at a busy intersection, a traffic agent busily directing traffic noticed that the cheap plastic bag the store had given me had broken and that my products had fallen to the street, of which I was oblivious. She flagged me down and halted traffic, enabling me to return to the intersection, which I had already crossed, and retrieve my stuff. I would have been distressed if I had gotten home with an empty bag.

I try to “return” such favors whenever I can.

 

 

 

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In situations where I am asked for a handout nowadays — when and if I am not inclined to simply brush the person off — I usually give more than asked for. If someone asks me for a dollar or for change, I usually give five dollars. I say to myself, what can one buy with a dollar nowadays?

One might ask, are you not, Mr. Smith, a smug do-gooder, someone who wants to be admired for your benevolence? And, how much good are our really doing? Why don’t you give to charities, or try to do good works with a lasting impact?

To this I would answer as follows, in a twofold response:

— I believe in serendipity, in letting things happen as they may. And in destiny. So, when I encounter a beggar, I often say to myself, it must be my time and duty to give today. There is a reason that fate has put us on the same path. It is a matter of taking things as they come.

— I feel that — this is crucial — giving under such circumstances can do more good than might readily be apparent. Because what the beggar needs, most of all, is encouragement, and a feeling that one is not regarded as being of no account or insignificant as a human being. So that, in surprising them and exceeding their expectations by being generous, one is giving beggars hope.

That, I feel, is what they need most.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017; updated June 2019

 

 

 

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addendum:

 

 

On Friday February 8 2019, I was on 57th Street around 6 or 7 in the evening on my way to a concert.

A woman who did not appear destitute and whose dress or appearance would not have attracted attention was standing on a corner. She looked innocuous and I didn’t take much notice of her.

She must have thought I looked like a nice, non-threatening person.

She suddenly looked up and said distinctly and politely, sounding well spoken: “Do you think you could give me a dollar so I could get some pizza.” The specificity of her request surprised me.

Nowadays a slice of pizza in Manhattan often costs three dollars. When I first came to Manhattan, a slice cost twenty cents.

I’ll give her five dollars, I thought. I reached into my wallet. Couldn’t find a five. I gave her a ten.

“Ten dollars!” she said with enthusiasm. “Thanks!”

Suddenly, I felt great, her happiness washing over me.

 

 

addendum:

 

I had a not un-similar experience to the one above on Saturday, June 22, 2019.

I was walking in Midtown Manhattan feeling abject — downcast and angry with myself.

A middle aged woman who did not seem shabbily dressed asked me for some change so she could get home to New Jersey. She pulled me momentarily out of my reverie and funk.

I gave her five dollars.

Giving can do you good and make you feel better.