That person panhandling on the street corner with a cardboard sign has been driving me crazy for years. Here’s why: When it comes to giving to the less fortunate, he or she reminds me that I am a hypocrite, and what’s worse, that I’m teaching my kids to be hypocrites too.
Of course, my hypocrisy isn’t on purpose. Whose is? I would love to be unconditionally charitable with my time, emotions, and money. But does that matter when I’m able to ignore a real person standing in front of me who is clearly down and out? Even if you think it’s a scam (no doubt some of the panhandlers are scammers), you’ve got to admit that almost no one would beg if they had better options.
A couple of years ago, my kids and I were wandering downtown, something my family rarely does, and my daughter, then 5, said, “Mama, is that Santa?”
She was excited, almost giddy. I turned toward her, so I could see whom she saw. It was summer, and I was skeptical that Santa would be out on the town, but we have seen stranger things, especially during comic con.
The gentleman she thought was Santa had a thick white-ish beard, but that’s where the resemblance stopped. He was tall and thin, not short and plump. He did, however, have a small belly protruding from his soiled, unbuttoned shirt.
His shoulders were hunched, making him look even older than he probably was, and he carried a cardboard sign,asking for help. I shut my eyes for a second, put my mental blinders on, and turned away from “Santa” as quickly as I could.
My 5-year-old kept asking me questions. “What does his sign say?” “Can We help him?” “Why are you pulling me?” Leave it to a kid to kick your butt emotionally and intellectually every single time. Still, I held it together and hurried my brood past the man as quickly as possible.
My son sensed my distress, for a change, and like a small miracle, didn’t protest. I told myself I would talk to both of my kids later about the beggar, and as we walked back to our car, I thought about what I would say. After thinking through various approaches, I gave up. It seemed too difficult. What did 5- and 7-year-olds need to know about the homeless? Um, I had no idea.
And so I said nothing and prayed they wouldn’t bring it up. We drove home, listening to the They Might Be Giants’ album Here Come the ABCs as if nothing had happened, stopping at the Starbucks just outside of our neighborhood to cheer everyone up. Blocking out someone else’s misfortune and destitution can be as easy as buying and eating a cake pop, right?
I like to think I’m a giving person, and I suppose I am to a degree. But, realistically, at the end of the day, there are only so many dollars I can donate before my husband and I have a standoff (he, by the way, thinks street corner panhandlers all work for an organized scam). And I like my cushy life. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have guilt about it, but right or wrong, given the choice of charity or me, I have chosen me far too many times.
There are a few things my family does every year that make us feel good and like we are making a difference. We sponsor a couple of kids at a sister school to ours every Christmas, buying them gifts and clothes from a wish list. We also sponsor a child who lives in an orphanage in Kenya.
But what I’ve come to realize is that when I’m considering being charitable (not talking just money here) to the poor, destitute, and homeless, I drive or walk past. I am heartless. Well, maybe not entirely heartless, because every time I drive past someone holding a sign, it sends me into an emotional tailspin, but mostly heartless. I want to give, but I don’t.
With approximately 550,000 homeless people who were accounted for across the United States in January 2016, turning a blind eye isn’t possible for me anymore. It’s time to right a wrong. So, I’m going to give the person begging on the street corner a couple of bucks the next time I can, wish them happy holidays, and stop teaching my kids that conditional charity is OK.