Choosing to give

I've found a use for that little pocket-watch pocket in the front of my jeans. Every time I put them on I try to make sure that I have at least two neatly folded bundles of a few dollar bills each. The reason? So that when I come across a panhandler, I have change ready to give them.

Giving money to panhandlers is a habit I've been trying to develop the past few years. Growing up, my training was the complete opposite. My parents thought that the only way to alleviate poverty was via systemic change, through government policies that took care of the needy fairly and equitably, and not through random acts of piety contingent on people's paths crossing. Not to mention that there was no way of knowing how a given individual would misuse the money that we worked so hard for! That's how I learned to quickly look away and ignore the beggar trying to get my attention, and not think too hard (or at all) about the dirty, smelly nuisance disrupting my own busy life and hard-earned leisure.

I am so ashamed.

I agree with my parents insofar as real change needs to be systemic and come via the infrastructure best able to give aid impartially, the government. That's why I favor policies that help the needy. It's also one of the reasons why I advocate for Universal Basic Income: contrary to what I was told growing up, studies have repeatedly shown that just giving money to the poor is an effective way to improve their lives, particularly if they can count on a predictable stream so that they can start planning for the future.

But while we work to alleviate poverty systematically, while we agitate for a world where no one resorts to panhandling (or worse) to survive, we still have poor people among us here and now, in the streets, asking for money. Those of us who are fortunate enough to not be in that situation thus have a choice: how do we respond?

I now choose to respond by acknowledging that the person begging for money is suffering. They are a fellow human being in distress, trying to make it through another day, and they would surely rather be doing something else, but for some reason they don't have the money to get basic life necessities. I don't know whether they made bad decisions, had bad luck, or are impaired. But that doesn't matter. They are still suffering, they are not rescued by our unraveling safety net, and they are ignored by the people around them who pass by, as I did, careful not to even make eye contact lest the miasma of misery and bad fortune spread through the mere recognition of their existence.

Giving a few dollars to a panhandler will not end poverty, nor will it fix their lives—but it's a start. The money itself makes a material difference to their welfare: it will allow them to make it through another day, a day closer to a systemic solution. Almost as important, however, is the mere act of acknowledging their plight. The panhandler has been left behind by society, and is now ignored by most passers-by—denied the social acknowledgment we humans need as social beings. By taking the time to interact with this person and give them something of ours, we are welcoming them back into the human family. We are saying “I see your suffering; may this play a part in alleviating your pain.” This is the generosity that holds families and societies together, and it is a bedrock principle of our various foundational creeds, religious and secular. Perhaps we need to be constantly reminded of it because of two other tendencies that fight against this compassion: our tribal impulse to dehumanize those who are different, and our disgust at associating with what we view as "failure."

This speaks to a further reason for giving out money. Beyond the material and psychological benefits to the recipient, it also changes us, the donors. It makes us stop relegating the problem to the abstract and ignoring the suffering in front of us, and instead helps us get into the habit of acknowledging that real people around us are suffering. It encourages a mindset of generosity to both help others directly when we can, and to work for systemic change so that we can reduce suffering more generally. Giving money is also a conscious act of rebellion against the pervasive message from our consumeristic and individualistic society, that "I" should always be accumulating more because that is a measure of my worth, that the needy are thus worthless because they have nothing, and that I should be looking out for myself alone because society is not looking out for me. Instead, rebelling against this training reassures us that it's OK to give, that it's OK to use some of what we have to help our fellow humans with no expectation of reciprocity. This rebellion amounts to a deliberate practice to change our outlook on the world: we choose to be connected to other people, we choose to give a damn, and we choose to do what we can to alleviate their suffering. The human connections strengthened by this practice can be the fire that keeps us continuing to work for systemic change that benefits everyone.

There are two psychological tips that have made carrying out this practice easier for me. One, as I mentioned, is making sure that I have dollar bills accessible so I can readily hand them out when needed (I'm not the first to think of this idea, by the way). The second is to set a resolution for how much I want to give in a given week or month. I started out comfortably small and I try to gradually increase the amount. Believe it or not, the mere act of setting a numeric target turns this into a game where I'm looking for opportunities to give in order to meet my objective. For me, it's been an effective way of changing my mindset and making the inclination to give feel more natural.

I recommend this giving practice to anyone who yearns to right social ills and to connect with people who are different. Again, this practice by itself won't fix social problems, but it does allow us both to concretely help someone in need and to cultivate a mindset of participatory activism. This is a crucial psychological element in figuring out systemic solutions, particularly in these times when cynicism seems ubiquitous and idealism rare.



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