Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Beg Your Pardon?
I've also spent a fair amount of time, in cities all around the world, encountering beggars and contemplating the moral dilemma posed by the massively unequal distribution of the world's wealth. Frankly, I've never been able to buy into the reasoning against helping beggars.
I must admit though, my rural upbringing may have rendered me somewhat naive on this topic, and I recently had a disconcerting encounter that I may have handled wrong. Here's what happened:
I was in Washington DC for a meeting and, during a ten-minute pause in a coffee shop, I watched a woman begging outside on a very busy sidewalk. She was sitting down, had a sign, and looked like she truly needed some help. As far as I could tell, during the time that I observed, not a single person offered her any change nor acknowledged her existence.
I knew I was not going to change her life with my spare change, but I thought she might appreciate knowing that at least one other person saw her as a fellow human, in need of a fortunate break. As I left the coffee shop, I crouched to her level, looked her compassionately in the eye, and warmly wished her "better times ahead" as I dropped my change into her cup.
No sooner had I stood up to cross the street when she began berating me with a loud and angry stream of expletives. I turned to see her dump the coins to the ground and I realized that she had been insulted by my meager financial offering. Momentary confusion gave way to embarrassment as a crowd of bystanders turned to view the raucous spectacle.
I have pondered this many times since it happened last spring, and I still can't make sense of it. I had approached her with the sincerest intentions of respecting her dignity, and I walked away feeling as though she had trampled on mine.
It always comes to mind for me now, each time I encounter a beggar. I have continued with my past approach of giving generously to some, modestly to others, and walking past most in the course of a typical day. I still think it is usually right to offer help from time to time, but I also wonder if I did something wrong in DC.