There are a lot of reasons not to do charity. Personally, I come up with new ones every day.
When I say “sorry” to homeless people who ask for money on the street, passing them without giving, I think to myself, “There’s no way this is the most efficient use of my money for good. Also they might use it for drugs and alcohol. Also I’m tired and I have places to be. And it’s not even my money, most of it is my parents’.” Plenty of that is true, of course, but it’s also true that I generally don’t donate to charities and I have extra cash almost all the time and it would likely mean a great deal to these people if I donated and it is especially true that I spend my parent’s money on far less worthy things.
But let’s say all of it is true and just because I don’t do better things with money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do at least some, less good things. Maybe I don’t have the time?
Except, my time isn’t worth a lot (I’m currently doing two different unpaid internships. My time is not just worthless, it is doubly worthless. Which, to be fair, is still just worthless.) So, presumably, I should do good things with it, like volunteer or, for the purposes of this post, help out the homeless.
So maybe there are other reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean, isn’t it just putting a band-aid over more systemic issues? And people aren’t hungry in this country, right? And Maimonides had a thing somewhere about not doing charity for other people in which they know who you are. And if I were homeless, I wouldn’t want privileged rich kids feeling all righteous and virtuous because they took one night off from drinking or watching Youtube videos to make and hand out basic sandwiches, the cheapest apples they could find, and three shirts someone was kind enough to
take off his back root out of a pile of things he likely never wears (which is still better than almost everyone else, myself included, who did not donate any clothes).
So I, wracked by guilt and paralyzed by indecision, do nothing. I am not sure where or how to give money, so I do not give at all. I am not sure that this is the right decision, so I do not look those who ask in the eye, worried that at some level they know that my smile and conversation would be a self-serving act intended to alleviate my guilt over not doing what seems like the obviously correct things by replacing a donation that would help them with a greeting that helps me because I get to be proud of “treating them like a human” and therefore being better than everyone else on the street. But, of course, I don’t even have that, because I don’t do it at all.
The truth is, I do not give food or money to the homeless because I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed at how little I am doing compared to how much I could do. I am embarrassed that I am abusing my privilege, that I am Othering the homeless, that I might be causing more harm than good. I am embarrassed that I might be, in the end, making the wrong decision, and my heartfelt sincerity is my socially evolved emotions’ joke on me. I am embarrassed that my friends might find out, and think how silly I am, to do something so gauchely earnest instead of engaging in further argumentation about Foreign Aid legislation and welfare politics. I am embarrassed to be doing something that I know looks good to others when I do not totally believe in it myself, even though I’ve been doing social justice projects my whole life.
What this means, of course, is that more privileged than spending money on conferences instead of malaria nets, more elitist than acting as if other humans are not worth my time, more self-serving than potentially getting more out of charity in the form of gratification and a sense of righteousness than I give in help or kindness, worse than all of that, I decided that my embarrassment was more important than their need.
It took doing the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship’s annual mandatory-for-fellows Midnight Run on Tuesday night to get me to shut up my over-active hyper-analytical excuse-finding machine that sits atop my neck. We signed up ahead of time, made about 100 sandwiches, put them in paper bags with cookies, juice boxes and snacks, and went in a van to preset spots to give them away. When we handed out the bags, we also spent time talking to the people we saw. This is fraught, too; who are we, to be entitled to their stories and their lives, when we would expect nothing of the kind from the housed? And yet, they spoke to us freely and happily, and those that did not want to talk were not pushed. We learned that Jose’s parents died when he was young, and Cynthia has a nursing degree and a terrible employment agency. Another woman told us she loved us and gave us all hugs. They often formed a network, telling us where their friends were and how long it had been since they’d eaten. One man hadn’t had anything to eat in two days. Overall, they preferred tuna sandwiches to peanut butter. It was wonderful, joyous, friendly, amazing. I felt happy; I felt like the evidence of the happiness and gratefulness I was causing showed I was doing the right thing, or at least a right thing.
What did I learn?
That empathy has limits. Empathy is a process of plugging a situation into your brain and letting it spit out what you might feel. It does brilliantly at illuminating the truths of what it means to be other people in the face of humanity’s overwhelming commonalities. It crosses barriers, extends care and undermines Otherizing. But empathy fails to contribute to understanding when there are real differences of experience and circumstance to contend with, and such is the case here. What I think I might feel is less than unhelpful; it turned out to be actively counterproductive, and exactly wrong.
That, contrary to popular belief, people still go hungry in this country.
That kindness, a willingness to engage, and a respect for choice go a long way.
That charity is a severely political act.
That even if we get more than we give, it’s a getting that doesn’t take.
I don’t think everyone should necessarily start giving money or food to the homeless. There are many reasons not to. Find whatever moves you, or maximizes the variable you’re looking for. But if what’s stopping you from doing something good is constant fear of doing it wrong, you should just do it. Grab friends, or do it alone. Sign up with a group, go with a church or a community service group or Volunteers Beyond Belief. Do it thoughtfully, of course, with as much care and respect and planning as possible.
When the stakes (your embarrassment, possibly making a fool of yourself, maybe doing a suboptimally good thing) are so low, you should just try. There’s time and space to improve; we don’t have to get it right the first time. If we get Food Aid wrong, we can destroy the economy of a small country. But if we get the everyday things wrong, the worst we have done is given sandwiches to those who are hungry, or lost a few dollars to the vicissitudes of humanity, or faltered while learning how to do good. So you try, and you learn, and you reflect, and then you get to do more good tomorrow.
This is going to sound saccharine, but I don’t want to be embarrassed of that anymore, so here goes:
Go make the world a better place. Even if you’re scared. We all are.