As soon as I parked the car, I saw the beggar sitting in the wheelchair at the corner of the building. He was an older, balding black man with curly white hair and dark clothes. His skin looked desiccated and worn out from life. The first thought that entered my mind was “No cash”, which was the lie I was going to tell him. Next came a feeling of remorse, maybe guilt, for that being my knee-jerk reaction. We walked past the beggar to get to our delicious, all-you-can-eat $11 Indian lunch. My friend and I work for the same company and find ourselves in fortunate financial situations. Our situations are such that $11 is a sum that doesn’t really register for either of us. It is noise in our financial baselines, below a threshold of any sort of concern. The beggar looked up at my friend: “Fifty cents?” to which my friend sharply responded, “No.”. The beggar cast his eyes toward our feet as we skirted past.
I imagine the beggar sits there for hours at lunchtime. Who knows what his story is, or what has reduced him to this?
“I ought to wheel him over to that Taco Bell and tell him to get a job.” I was startled when my friend said that. “We have homeless shelters and soup kitchens to take care of them.” As he continued to rationalize his choice and his conviction that the beggar was simply lazy, I watched my brain in a split second create all sorts of judgements about my friend, who was making judgements about the beggar. I said nothing. The heat of the judgements dissipated and what was left was the residue of hypocrisy. In the end, although my mindset was different, both my lack of generosity was indistinguishable from his. We walked into the buffet, ate too much, and chatted about our lives and situations. After lunch, we walked back to the car and the beggar was still there. This time, he didn’t even look up.
What was the right course of action? Giving him $1? $5? $20? $0? Or should I have given something else? I have been in other similar situations where I have given all of the above. Not that the beggar couldn’t use the money, but maybe thinking in terms of money is too convenient, even lazy. I’m not sure what the right answer was. Maybe I should have given him $1 and spent a few minutes to talk with him like a respectful human being would. I do know that my decision making was driven by aversion. Aversion to what? I’m not exactly sure: the awkwardness of the encounter, having to face that situation, thinking of myself as cheap, what my friend might think, thinking of all the drugs and booze he would buy with the $1, and a bunch of other things that don’t matter in the grand scheme because they are just self-centered thoughts and emotions in my brain. I did not think about the fact that he is a fellow human who probably lives on the street or in a homeless camp (there are two large ones in the shadow of the two Indianapolis sites of the Fortune 500 company that is my employer), that homeless shelters in town don’t let people stay more than a couple of days, that many of the homeless experience chronic health conditions without access to care, or that the man might not have had a meal containing fresh vegetables in who knows how long. Things that are a normal part of my existence, like eating from a plate with flatware, having practically unlimited clean, hot water, and, the dream of my mother (who grew up on a farm in the Mekong delta and worked in a plastics factory, nursing home, and kitchens in the US) for me, having a job where I could sit in a chair in air conditioning in the hot weather and heat in the cold weather, are probably about as accessible as the moon to him.
Sometimes, the right course of action is difficult to see. It seems so simple and it is: do what needs to be done without regard to outcome. In the moment, though, our brains are good at throwing us off. What obscures the path are our instincts of clinging to what we have, self-gratification, and attachment to specific outcomes. Burning off those mental distractions and getting to the point where one does the right thing automatically and consistently takes honest self-reflection and constant cultivation of good habits. Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to shift our mindsets towards a more selfless orientation. Clearly, I still have work to do.