From Danny (all pictures are from the streets of Peru and Bolivia)
I used to carry around an awful burden. It was the burden of needing to be “all-knowing” regarding who was and was not “worthy” or truly in need of my charity.
For understandable reasons, many of us are encouraged to be quite wary of giving money to people. You never know how they are going to use it. Do you want to give to someone who is just going to buy alcohol? Use drugs? Do you want to give to a scam artist, someone making a comfortable living by pretending to be sick or in need?
We’ve all heard rumors about how someone will use charity or seen the news reports about scam artists, and so our skepticism is understandable. We are now placed in the position of judging who will and who will not use our money wisely. This is something we are ultimately incapable of doing (actually knowing the intentions of another person) — hence the awful burden.
The reality is, no matter how careful you try to be, chances are you’re still going to occasionally give to someone who will use it to continue their self abuse or who is scamming you. You’re also likely to misjudge someone and fail to give to those who are in true need and whom you would have been delighted to help if you knew perfectly the sincerity of their situation and need.
3 Ways To Approach The Problem
Faced with that reality of sure failure, you have 3 options or ways at looking at the responsibility to give:
- Continue trying to discern (and continue failing miserably)
- Stop giving to anyone directly and only give to charities you know support the needy (thus passing the burden of deciding who is in need of charity to someone else)
- Take yourself out of the position of all-knowing judge and just give to all who ask of you if you have something to give
I used to float between 1 and 2. It felt most responsible to me at the time. I easily rationalized that since I already gave 10% or more of my income to my church, that donation sufficiently relieved me of the burden of helping everyone else. Besides, I thought, surely there are people in my church or other organizations I give to that are more than capable of assessing who really is or is not in need. Let them, with all their expertise, figure that out for me.
If I saw someone in need, I tried to decide if I felt the need was sincere and if I could spare a little more. Though I have to admit, due to my own faults, I often passed up opportunities thinking I was already doing all that could be reasonably expected of someone. I’m ashamed to admit the thought actually occurred to me that the needy human being should rely on someone else who wasn’t already giving as much as I was.
Uneasiness And A Need To Shift
Ultimately, options 1 and 2 were not very fulfilling. When we allow all of our charitable givings to be administered by someone else or some institution, we are removed from the actual experience of compassion, human connection, and meeting the needs of those RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. I wasn’t sure how to resolve that problem until I considered what before seemed inconsiderable and irresponsible: option number 3.
That shift has been one of the most rewarding changes of my life. I hope to explain to you why, and what shifts in thinking I’ve had to undergo to make it such an enriching and beautiful experience.
While Walking The Streets Of Puno On The Shores Of Lake Titicaca
To explain, I’ll need to share the experience that inspired this post. Mara and I were walking the streets of Puno, Peru, and came across a few people in need who we were committed to helping. One man in particular sticks out in my mind. On the discerning/”all-knowing” end of things, this one was a bit easier to judge the severity of need. His eyes were cloudy, perhaps with cataracts. He was seated on the ground in a way that made me suspect his legs were deformed in some way. He had one hand that was clearly misshapen. With his other hand he played a tune without melody on his harmonica.
I knelt down to speak with him and he stopped playing his music. I looked in his eyes and asked his name. He returned my gaze, smiled a toothless grin and said “Santiago”. I smiled back and said it was nice to meet him. My name is Danny, and this is my wife Mara. I thanked him for his music, gave him some change, and wished him a wonderful evening. He put his harmonica down, extended his good hand to shake mine and offer the biggest smile and gratitude. He then asked my wife’s name and extended his hand to her, and thanked her, shaking her hand for what could have seemed like an uncomfortable amount of time, all while thanking and blessing us while Mara replied mucho gusto.
When he finally let go, he continued smiling and waving and thanking. We returned his blessings and said farewell friend. When we made it into the next small textile store I couldn’t help but weep.
The Importance Of Seeing A Human Being
Imagine how many people pass by this man each day without even looking or acknowledging his existence. Imagine the others who perhaps acknowledge him but move on uncomfortably. Imagine again the numbers that are kind enough and are able to give money or support of some kind, but do so by dropping the coins in a can and moving on, almost as if he is a vending machine or some other inanimate object. How many stop to see the human being in front of them? A human being who is in the terrible position of relying daily on the kindness of others for sustenance? Based on his response to this brief but sincere exchange, my guess is not many.
It’s Not Money That You’re Giving
Stop thinking that what you are giving is money. If you think that, then you are forever going to be playing the same old game of judgment and discerning that you are sure to fail at.
Realize what you are actually giving is your presence.
You are giving them the time of day to look into their eyes, show them you see their humanity, ask their name, shake their hand. To acknowledge them and share a moment together, to look at them as an equal whose eyes should be met, whose name should be heard.
Presence is what you are giving, and it is what they need.
Not All Want To Receive Presence, Or Know How
It is true, some of those who are out to deceive you, or intend to use your charity to feed addiction and abuse, may not be capable of sharing that moment with you, of returning your presence. But will you as a human being be any worse off for trying to offer it?
And for the person who will use your money to feed addiction, can you imagine what it just might mean to them to be viewed as a human being and not a label like “junkie” or “alcoholic”? Perhaps that is the very thing, the very interaction, that will bring change to their life. Or maybe it won’t be that one, but the accumulation of many such interactions over time, if only more of us were capable of doing that. I know the book/movie/musical is fictional, but isn’t that what Les Miserables is about? Isn’t that how it all begins? Lives are changed when one soul is willing to actually look at another that everyone else ignores or avoids, and is willing to call him brother or sister. This is where the universal story of personal redemption begins.
More recent studies show that perhaps the biggest factor in addiction isn’t the chemical process at all, but the isolation from others and lack of connection. So quit worrying as much about if you are feeding an addiction. Think more about the capacity to offer them the thing that is most missing – Connection, Love, Humanity, Presence. And if it costs you a dollar or five in order to give them this more important gift, so be it. I promise you it will be worth it, if not to them in the moment, it will be to you as you learn how to see others through different eyes.
And you never know — you just might have an experience like we did with Santiago (and a few others during our travels) that causes you to weep because you’re so humbled by the Joy that comes over you and them when Presence is shared and humanity is acknowledged.
Whether you think Jesus is the Son of God, a great teacher, or a myth, his life is still an example of exactly this — of giving Presence to those who the rest of society ignored, shamed, rejected, and judged. In fact, sometimes when some came seeking a meal, he gave it to them, but made sure to explain to them that the more valuable thing he had to offer them was connection, love, and relationship. So it should be with the rest of us.
When it comes to giving to organizations, I’m very much in favor of understanding how they will use the funds (administration costs vs. actual charity) and how they will help those in need. I try to be very discerning in such cases, and use the data available to figure out the best place to give. But when it comes to human beings right in front of you with their hand out, there is often no real data available. And it wouldn’t matter if there was. Because my chief goal isn’t to give money anyway, but to give Love and Presence and human to human Compassion.
May each of you have a wonderful Christmas or Hanukkah or Holiday Season. As you go about your busy activities and the hustle bustle – may you find someone in need not only of money or presents, but of your Love and Presence. And may you find the few moments and vulnerability it takes to truly give it to them.
Do you also do something like this? Do you feel intimidated at the thought of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section, as well as any of your practices or experiences that have made giving more meaningful for you and your family.