Walking home last night a man of about 50 in an old blue parka and a pair of work pants greeted me, then extended a cup in his hand asking for a contribution. For me, for most I think, these are embarrassing situations. For some perhaps it easier because they have a standard response, or have an unwavering belief in their own perspective. I don’t have that and I don’t think I want it. Though I am as sceptical as anyone scepticism seems a small price to pay if I incline to generosity.
About half the time I respond with the loose change in my pocket to the mumbled gratitude of the recipient. The rest of the time I acknowledge the request but turn it down with a “sorry mate”, or something similar. It all happens so quickly and unexpectedly that I never know which way I’ll turn until it happens.
Such was the case last night. I was asked in a place I didn’t expect to come across a beggar. Before I knew it I was smiling ruefully and brushing past him. He smiled back, used to this response no doubt and probably expecting it, wishing me a good day.
I carried on feeling guilty as I always do in the wake of this. Why shouldn’t he hope for a few coins – they mean much more to him than to me. I was tall and robust and healthy, clad in an expensive suit and trench-coat, the career man, the go-getter, the very picture of prosperity. Why should I not give what I can so easily afford?
As always the counter-argument came forth: you can’t give to everyone. Somewhere a line must be drawn. I give half the time, isn’t that something? Yes, it is, but in the cold light of day, it doesn’t really hold water. Why must a line be drawn? Ultimately this is all excuse. It’s ego battling altruism. I give and there lurks in the back of my mind the suspicion that I am being taken for a sucker, that instead of money for lunch or train fare home the money will be used for booze or, worst still, as part of a scam.
Does it matter though? Isn’t the genuine good done outweigh the occasional fraud? What matters if I am fooled? I’m big enough to shrug my shoulders.
I may seem the classic liberal, but equally, I believe in the rights of the individual. There’s usually a line drawn between those two positions, but there is little I see incompatible between them. Like most things, they can exist balancing one against the other.
I believe in individuality and the freedom of expression: that’s how I seek to live my life. I think people should be encouraged to have a go, that we should reward those who aspire to rise out of the common muck – and in this, I differ from many liberals. I believe the freedom to do and to be has a price – and that price is that we should help those less fortunate or without the means to do what we have done. Those who can have a moral obligation to assist those who cannot. It’s karma really: do good and good will come. And it’s a form of healthy humility, appreciating one’s good fortune and never taking it for granted. It’s a small price. I wish I had of stopped last night and emptied my pockets of loose change. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. It costs me little but means much.