Like many people I'm sure, I find it far easier to give money to charitable organizations than to give or perform acts of charity directly to individuals. I'm not talking about friends, family members, co-workers or other acquaintances. Of course it is easy to act altruistically toward them. I am talking about strangers, the guys holding signs at the freeway off-ramps or holding out a cup on a busy downtown street. The ones who approach you at gas stations and ask you for money for gas so they can get home. I am naturally distrustful of them. I was taught to be by my mother and by a childhood spent in the conman capital of America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Philly, the blind man asking you for change is probably picking your pockets at the same time. The deaf kid who tries to sell you pencils walks away with your shopping bags before you know what happened. It has made me distrustful.
When I look at the guy holding the "Will Work For Food" sign I am looking at him for signs of drug or alcohol abuse. I am looking to see if he has any injuries and handicaps that would explain why he doesn't already have a good job. Before I give him my money I want to know that he is really going to use it for food and isn't going to buy alcohol or drugs with it, that he isn't some horrible felon. I want to know everything about them as if I was going to give them a job instead of just a dollar or some spare change.
Well, I began thinking about this recently and the absurdity of it. Why would I so readily send money to Goodwill or Big Brothers Big Sisters or Adopt a family for Christmas but will not lend a hand to people standing directly in front of me? It is true that a great many homeless people have dependency issues. But it is also true that a great many of them are mentally disturbed or disabled. With the woefully inadequate number of beds available for mental patients in most cities they are being pushed out onto the streets in droves when most of them are not capable of finding jobs and supporting themselves and so they wind up on the streets. It is also true that a great many homeless people are now our neighbors who have lost their jobs to the recession and lost their homes to foreclosure.
It has occurred to me that, were I to lose my job in this economy where jobs are so scarce, and I was to wind up homeless on the street, struggling to support my family, I would not be the sort of person I would give money to. If I saw someone who looked like me asking for money to buy his daughter diapers, I would walk right by him, wondering what such a healthy, obviously intelligent person was doing begging for money instead of working a 9 to 5. That is one fucked up realization to come to. Sometimes, we all need a helping hand and I now feel that I have failed my fellow man with my distrust and skepticism.
I have done exactly what I have accused conservatives of doing. I have trivialized the suffering of others, assuming that everyone is as equipped to succeed as I am. This is simply not the case. We are not all equal. We are not all educated equally. We do not all begin life with the same opportunities economically or otherwise. We do not all have the same emotional strength. We do not all have the same intellectual abilities, the same mental faculties.
There are some who, through no fault of their own, have fallen behind and some that will never catch up, that will always need extra help. And I know that this will make the conservatives among you cringe, but there are many that we as a society have failed by trapping them in ghettoes and providing them insufficient education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. There are some who were doomed from birth, who have been so emotionally damaged by their parents and others that they will never succeed without help and that help may be as simple as a meal, a shirt, a jacket, some shoes, or the change from a stranger's pocket in a time of desperate need.
With this being the case, I am trying to amend my thinking about charity. I am trying to be more altruistic to those who are right in front of me rather than continuing to send checks to charity while overlooking the outstretched hand in front of me. It is a hard road. I am no less distrustful. I am not saying that I will now give without thought to every open hand. There are still many who need to just get a job. But there are many many more who will always require the kindness of strangers to survive and, for them, I will try to be there when I am able.