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giving ease

A woman came up to me in the Menards parking lot yesterday, crying and telling her story.  Before she was halfway through, I just opened my wallet and gave her $20.  At which point she gave me a fierce hug and then left.  On the one hand, I could have used that $20 to pay for the roll of plastic I was getting at Menards, or to bring me $20 closer to the much-needed roofing.  On the other hand, no particular bill in my pocket is going to be the one that makes or breaks me.  Not yet, anyway.

Her story sounded a bit fishy; I am a cynic, so all the stories sound fishy to me.  But, I am a compassionate cynic:  I don't care what her story is, if she feels the need to walk up to random strangers asking for money, then I'd like to do a little to get her past that bit of the day.  I find I'm far, far more comfortable with being duped than I am with leaving someone in need. 

And, I don't like to judge whether someone's need is "appropriate" or not.  I endeavor to help people so they can pursue what they need or want to do, not what I think they ought to be doing.  That "live and help others live" philosophy seems to be one of the more consistent family traits. 


One of my brothers lives...somewhere on the streets of a west coast city.  He's been doing that for roughly twenty years.  I gather he's sort of a pillar of the homeless community, going to city council meetings to speak for them, etc.  He has also had a drug problem off and on, and age is catching up with him in the form of health problems.

As a family, we've helped him when we can, talked with him when we can.  The brother who lives closest gave him shelter for quite some time, and they were there for him when he was in the hospital, and my sister-in-law has looked into alternative situations for him, housing- and aid-wise.  But we all understand that you can't make someone come in, and you can't make someone go to rehab - and have it stick - until they're good and ready.  I know from my own personal experiences that "good and ready" tends to be synonymous with "rock bottom"; it's hard to wish that sort of readiness on anyone else.

And I think most of the siblings have a feeling that, if it were us, we'd want others to keep their noses out of our business and let us run our lives the way we want.  And if I want that freedom to be an option for me, then I must help to maintain it for others.  There is an expense there, a necessary support of things I might not agree with, because once I legitimize the idea of making a judgement call, then others can do the same to me, and to everyone else.   

My brother had a responsible life for a while:  owned his own successful business, had a wife, kids, and house, collected classic cars.  The business eventually dissolved, the marriage became ugly, drugs became his only refuge, and somewhere along there he decided he'd had enough.  And he became comfortable with a different life:  reading books, locating free dinners, not really being beholden to anyone for anything.  There's rough stuff too - police pulling down tents, him getting hit by a car - but I don't think he ever wants to come within shouting distance of that old life again. 

There are days, when I wring myself dry at work just to maintain the status quo at home, that I dream about his particular brand of freedom.

What's harder to forgive is that it's hard on Mom.  She was out west recently, but he couldn't be found...that might have been the last opportunity for them to see each other before one of them dies.  But even Mom understands why the current life appeals to him:  she is sad, but not judgmental.  There is a certain type of Midwestern "charity" that she doesn't buy into with the zeal that her neighbors and church-mates do:  a belief that when a person gives charity, it is to be accepted with gratitude, regardless of whether the charity is useful, appropriate, or of any sort of quality.  These tend to be people who won't give a person on the street $20, or volunteer in any way that's the slightest bit inconvenient or thankless, but they will give a sack of old, stained clothes to Goodwill and will then feel good about themselves. 

Not to paint all Midwesterners this way, nor to say it's a purely Midwest thing, but I grew up hearing people complain about what they did for someone.  Bless Mom for being less that way...she's a bit that way, but I think we all are from time to time.  It's something I try to not do - certainly not publicly, and when I hear myself thinking it, I try to stop and analyze my thoughts.  Charity is not something that's to be done only if you get something in return, or because of any external influence.  The act of giving should speak to your own soul and tell you it was the right thing to do.   

Yay Mom for gifting us with the combination of personal independence and compassion for others.

My brother's situation doesn't define my philosophy - that's been pretty well established for more than two decades, and probably has a lot to do with unconsciously picking up on Mom's approach to charity - but it's an example that I need to take into account when I consider my actions.  If my brother stopped me in the street and asked for $20, would I give it to him, knowing he would very likely use it for drugs and alcohol and not, for example, to call Mom?  Probably - even though the family would not all be on the same page with that.  He's family, though, and family obligations are a bit more complex - I have Mom to consider too.  So I'd try to hang some qualifications on it - staying at a place and staying sober for a while, giving Mom a call, something like that.  But if he balked then I'd give him the money and a hug and ask him to be safe.
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