My "gift" to a homeless man - and what it taught me about myself


Recently, while visiting Boise, Idaho, we happened upon an all-too familiar scene: a relatively unkempt man, clothes a bit dirty and disheveled, sitting on a street corner holding a cardboard sign. The legible, but poorly written message was simple: “living in car – need gas/food – can you help?”

I have a soft-spot in my heart for the down-trodden. Admittedly, though, I have at times grappled with the thought that “the homeless guy on the corner” is there because of his own poor choices, so why should I help? “He just wants to buy drugs or alcohol” I would sometimes suggest to myself. I confess that I’ve even thought: “He COULD work – he’s just out to scam a few bucks from other hard-working people.” But usually, I repent for the thought, and remind myself that it’s not my place to judge. Sometimes, people simply fall on hard times.

Frankly, the road they’ve had to travel doesn’t matter. Sincere or not, one of my fellow humans is asking for some help. So why not extend a helping hand?

The other issue is this: rather than help encourage panhandling and perpetuate the risks that it involves, civic leaders in many communities have suggested that we contribute to a more systematic way of helping those in need. Making contributions to homeless shelters and other organizations that serve the underprivileged provides a bit more reassurance that the funds aren’t going toward illicit substances, but to food, shelter, and other resources. And that makes a lot of sense. It’s actually become our preferred method of contributing, so, we regularly offer a portion of our time or money to some of these organizations. And from what we can tell, it seems to help.

That day in Boise, however, we decided to “supplement” our more formal contributions. We don’t usually carry much cash, and as I checked my pocket, I had $22 – a twenty, and two ones – so we decided to hand the man on the corner the two dollars. I suppose we should have given him all of it – he clearly appeared worse-off than we are – but those cynical thoughts that kick around in my head convinced me that $2 was enough. I mean, we hadn’t seen one car give this man anything, so I felt pretty good about it. I handed my wife the meager offering and lowered the window next to her. She reached out, offering our small gift to the stranger.

He made his way to the car, and without making eye contact took the money from her hand. Then, to my disbelief, he muttered in disgust, “2 lousy bucks” – and then turned away without a word or even a glance of thanks.

Let’s pause here for a moment.

I’m curious to know whether or not I am alone in my initial response. How would you react to a situation like that? What thoughts might swirl around in your head if you were in that situation? Essentially, I offered a stranger something he asked for, he took it, and then symbolically spat in my face. Or so it felt.

Immediately, I found myself glad I hadn’t given him the other $20. In fact, I was a little bothered that I’d given him the $2! “How ungrateful!,” I thought to myself. OK, those thoughts actually evolved into words that flowed right out of my mouth. My wife and I shared our mutual disbelief, although not surprisingly, she was way more level-headed about it than I was. Sure, it was only $2, but it was the PRINCIPLE of the matter!

Wasn’t it?

Actually, no – it wasn’t.

Soon after we pulled away, I had a couple of important questions rush in and challenge my thinking: WHY had I given him the two bucks? What was my MOTIVATION for doing so?

In THAT moment, I realized that I hadn’t really given my fellow man a gift at all.

I didn’t really part with the whopping $2 because I thought it could help HIM. I had actually given it for ME! I wanted – maybe even NEEDED in some way – that expression of gratitude! I wanted that brief moment of thanks, where I could pat myself on the back and say to myself, “Nice job, Clark! You did your two-dollar part toward making the world a better place!” And other thoughts of that nature. I was simply casting out a line with $2 as bait, fishing for validation. And when what I reeled in wasn’t a warm and fuzzy “at a boy,” it ticked me off.

Wow.

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit it now, but the truth is, I realized my giving was so much more about the “gifter” than the “giftee.” Had my focus been solely to help a brother, his reaction – whether grateful or thankless or anything in between – would have no bearing on how I felt about giving the gift.

So, I began to wonder: what other “gifts” do I give for myself under the guise of helping another? Do I smile and say hello to others to brighten THEIR day, or is it so I might be seen as a friendly guy?

I’m reminded of the debate over altruism. Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. But some wonder if pure altruism even exists. “When we help strangers (or animals), there must always be some benefit to us, even if we're not aware of it. Good deeds make us feel good about ourselves. They make other people respect us more too, or might (so far as we believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven. Or perhaps altruism is an investment strategy—we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favour (sic) someday, when we are in need. (This is known as reciprocal altruism.)” (Steve Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology Today, June 2015).

In defense of altruism – and in our innate sense of care for others – Dr. Taylor goes on to explain, “Many acts of kindness may be motivated by self-interest. But is it naive to suggest that ‘pure’ altruism can exist as well? An act of pure altruism may make someone feel better about themselves afterwards, and it may increase other people's respect for them, or increase their chances of being helped in return at a later point. But it's possible that, at the very moment when the act takes place, their only motivation is an impulsive unselfish desire to alleviate another person's suffering.”

I’d like to think that at that moment in Boise, my only motivation was to help – in a $2 way – alleviate a fellow-man’s suffering. But his reaction exposed that deeper “desire” I was unaware of at the surface – my need to be seen as the helper.

Thankfully, I soon began to recognize an important truth in how we relate to others, help others, give to others. It is that the best gifts are given out of love for another, with no expectation of anything in return. They are unconditional.

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