The rhetorical question

Last week I posed a completely rhetorical hypothetical question about whether or not you would donate money to a starving family on the condition that you would have to give the same amount of money to someone who would use it to buy crack. Contrary to what some people have argued, this was not a question I was going to use to pin people into a corner, nor was it a way to preach my political views. In fact, it wasn’t even a metaphor for the bail out, I hadn’t even thought about that until someone suggested it in the comments. But I can completely see how you could view it as such.

I was genuinely interested in what I knew were going to be a wide variety of responses and the reasons behind those responses. I didn’t give my opinion at first because I didn’t want that in any way to affect your honest answers, but now that so many have weighed in with thoughtful reasons why they would or would not (and some not so thoughtful), I’ll go ahead: I absolutely would give the money. No questions. Not a second thought.

That does not mean that I think you are an evil monster if you disagree with me, and perhaps I should explain my reasons for asking it in the first place. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with my older brother, Ranger.

I am the youngest of three children. My sister September is five years older than I am, my brother three. My sister and I were somewhat close growing up, but she was already in love with the man who would become her husband by the time I had reached an age where we had anything in common. I was much closer to my brother, and he was my hero. I thought he was the brightest and funniest person alive, and in high school I was proud whenever I got a teacher who had taught Ranger before me. They always gave me special treatment as Ranger’s little sister because he was charming, hard-working, and a total smart aleck. I remember sitting in my Freshman Biology class hearing Ranger and his physics teacher next door screaming jokes at each other to see who could out wit their opponent, and since my Biology teacher had taught Ranger three years before SHE TOTALLY KNEW what was going on. Several times she stopped class to laugh into her sleeve, and to my horror she would announce to everyone, “That’s Heather’s brother you hear. I love that guy.”

I loved that guy, too, and when he left for college the next year it broke my heart. I was the only child left in the house, and I didn’t have my brother there to tell me stories or to make me laugh. The first semester of my sophomore year was lonely, but when he returned home for Christmas vacation it was as if he had never left, perhaps even better than when he’d left because now he had all these stories about his roommates at BYU and the adventures they got themselves into to distract themselves from wanting to have sex. Even 18 years later when he mentions one of those roommates I can remember exactly who he’s referring to and whether or not he was the one who dressed up as Condom Man for Halloween.

But something happened during that Christmas vacation that changed a fundamental part of me, and I bet you he doesn’t even remember this. I’d forgotten about it until last week when my brother and I met for lunch, and sitting there across from him at that sushi restaurant and listening to his stories I remembered what a profound effect his influence has had on me.

It was Christmas 1990, and he and I went shopping at a local mall to find gifts for the family. It was bitterly cold outside made worse by a cutting wet breeze, winters in Memphis are like that, and as we pulled out of the parking lot at the mall we passed a man standing on the median of the road selling single stem roses for $2. He was wearily disheveled, not dressed at all for the weather, and looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He could have been starving, but he also could have been a drug addict. I’ll never know.

We’d always been taught that you ignore these people, they’ll take your money and use it to buy booze, or they’re somehow scamming you. Better to keep your money and do something more productive with it. Except Ranger pulled right up to the man, handed him a twenty dollar bill and said, “I’d like a rose for my sister,” and he pointed toward the passenger seat. “I haven’t seen her in months.”

The man looked down at the bill as if he were holding a fragile newborn animal, and his hands started to shake.

“Aw man,” he said. “I ain’t got no change for this. You got something smaller?”

“No,” said Ranger, and then as he shifted the car into drive he continued, “Please keep it.”

The window was still down as the car pulled away, and I’ll never forget how he called after us, “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, MAN! YOU’LL NEVER KNOW!”

As we pulled up to a stop light in silence Ranger finally spoke up. “I saw him when we first drove into the parking lot hours ago. No telling how long he’s been out there, and he doesn’t have change for a twenty? LET HIM HAVE MY TWENTY.”

I asked Ranger if he cared what that man did with the extra money and he said he hadn’t even thought about that. It was just evident that the man selling roses needed those extra eighteen dollars more than he did. It felt like the right thing to do.

Does this mean that I give money to every homeless person or beggar I encounter? No, but I have frequently, and am inclined to err on the side of charity because of my brother’s example. (And yes, this can be extended to all sorts of volunteer work and charity) And there have been many instances when I’ve ignored the homeless because of the very thought that they would use the money I gave them to do something stupid, and without fail I regret that impulse. And then I wonder why I had that impulse in the first place, and then struggle with myself when I experience that impulse again. Because I have to believe that even if only one of the hundreds of people uses that money to feed themselves or their dog or their hidden, desperate children, or even if they use it to have a more comfortable night than the one they had last night, then we will have done right in every instance by fighting that impulse.

  • Lori

    Your story is so beautiful — your love for your brother, and his compassion. But when I read “You’ll never know, man — you’ll never know” it moved me to instant tears.

    That is the thing, isn’t it? We never will know how our actions today can reverberate in someone’s life for a long time, even for ever. There have been times in my life when a stranger’s kindness has made all the difference — a warm smile, a brief connection, that lifted me from despair.

    Here is a thought for all of those people who think giving money to a crack addict to buy crack or an alcoholic to by alcohol — something an AA sponsor said to me many years ago: The most normal thing I ever did was drink to ease my pain.

    Addiction is a disease, and while destructive, the practicing addict’s medicine is their drug of choice. Enabling? Perhaps — but whether your money is used on crack or food, you are helping to keep an addict alive until they can begin to heal. You are demonstrating to them that their is love and compassion in the world, that they are worth caring about — that life is in fact worth living. The alcoholic may use your money to buy cheap wine, but it may also be your kindness that ultimately gives them the strength to get sober.

    Kindness is never, ever wasted.

  • David Gannon

    Heather, this is enlightening. Thank you.
    But I would also like to chime in on what Denver, CO is doing in an effort to curb this “street-corner” begging.

    I too struggle with your dilemma, like so many others, and I agree with your situation and solution, BUT, what Denver has done is to try and head this off and provide, 1) a community solution to this epidemic, and 2) give us compassionate/wishy-washy givers an excuse NOT to just hand over our money to these people.

    Denver has set up what look like parking meters that accept money like the old-fashioned coin meters. This money goes to fund homeless and indigent programs that offer food and shelter for these “beggars.”

    I hope I am not coming across as ignorant or heartless. I am just frustrated that someone (sometimes 3-4 people) every block can bug you for cash and you have no idea what your money is being used for-they could be pocketing five figures per year. And hey, maybe it doesn’t matter as long as you feel good about your actions.
    Thanks for listening

  • jana

    Um, your brother sounds AWESOME.

    Someone once explained to me that if you do a good deed, it’s not your responsibility to see to it that the person you helped uses your goodness in the “right” way. That’s God’s responsibility. I don’t know how/if that works, but I like the idea.

  • Shona

    How bummed are you that your brother and sister got such cool names? I mean Heather is nice, but Ranger is awesome

  • Anonymous

    a long time ago my dad was nearly homeless and he said it’s almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have an address or a place to take a shower.
    Fortunatly for my dad, his best friend had a spare room and let him live there until he got over the serious funk he was in.
    my dad has taught me so much about compassion, he always points out the things the rest of society tries to ignore.
    it seems to me that there’s not much controversy in giving alms to the poor.

  • Carolyn

    When I studied Sociology in college one instructor said (and please remember this was a long time ago) if you give a poor family $20 they will blow it on soda pop, junk food and a Toni perm. They will buy coal and burn it all in one night because they have been so cold. But, she said, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them the $20. Just give it and know that for one night they will have everything they want.
    I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s words I live by.

  • Daina

    Beautiful story.

  • Aga

    Jenn # 10: I think by ‘rhetorical,’ Heather meant that the answer should be obvious.

  • Rachael

    Yowser. What a great story. Seriously, $18 in the grand scheme of things is not a lot when you are in a position to be able to recoup that cash. And why not, if I have a little extra, it’s money better spent on a someone who genuinely needs it. Goodness knows, I’d probably just spend it on stuff I don’t need. It’s when we fight the impulses and go against a lifetime of conditioning, that’s such a small step in remembering (and reminding others around us) that we are all human afterall.

    Compassion is totally where it’s at. It’s the thing with gift giving (kindness, money, time, whatever)… the act of giving is enough; it should never be conditional upon how you think someone else should spend it.

  • Rod

    I knew you were big hearted, but I had no idea just how big your heart really is. The world seems a better place today, knowing you are out there.

  • Kay

    Thanks for yet again making me cry! I was the little girl that gave my clothes and favorite toys to the poor children that would drift through my Dad’s church. When I was much older I volunteered at soup kitchens and the Salvation Army and such giving food to the homeless and when I was there I saw all the much older adults always trying to change the people and even treating them with distain when they couldn’t get through to them. That’s not the point of doing a good deed like that – the point is to give a gift to show love or “Charity” and leave it at that – asking nothing in return, not even a change of heart from the person you’re giving to. I have since stopped volunteering at those places for my safety – I was stalked my another volunteer worker and by some of the homeless men I fed. I miss that kind of giving. I still give money now and then and try not to judge the person standing there with their hand out. Thanks for the lovely story!

  • Susanne

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story. It was truly inspiring.

  • Anonymous

    That is a nice story. Your brother seems like a genuine guy. Do I do what he does? NOPE. I work for the government you see. I work in social programs – all freakin day. I see the abuse of the system by the zillions who sit on their as*es all day, yap on their cell phones (always new ones), lug babies on both hips and buy Tommy Jeans. Yet they go to the Emergency Room to have a pregnancy test because they “can’t afford to buy a kit”. DUH
    I hate give-a-ways. I believe in people getting off their as*es and getting a job. If that man can STAND out there in all kinds of weather, he is capable of STANDING at McDonalds. The problem with these people is that they want easy jobs making 50 grand a year for an entry level job. No one wants to work for minimum wage. And why should they? They have a government who GIVES them everything and allows them to spend their time begging. It’s never their fault. Always someone else’s. Feed the homeless animals who can’t get jobs – let the humans actually have to lift a finger and better themselves.

  • Darice

    Couldn’t have said it better. I have friends that when I do give, they ask me what will I do if they use it for drugs… I tell them that charity begins and ends with me giving the money. I shouldn’t propose to judge the validity of what they need it for.

  • Dodi

    Thank you for an amazing post, Heather. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that I can be a sucker or not as cynical as I should be at times, but then I try to focus on something I remember my Mom saying that her Dad used to tell her, which was along the lines of…he’d rather be the one to have given someone the benefit of the doubt and have been wrong/”suckered”, because at least he was the one with the good intention and the person who wronged him will be the one to be judged poorly in the end (or have it come back to them in the form of bad karma). I’ve also learned (the hard way…by having two kids who I love very much suffer for years at the hands of a very abusive father while the state turned their back, until they were finally rescued and became a part of my family) that you never know what someone is going through or has gone through in their past, so why not err on the side of giving them that benefit of the doubt? I’d much rather be on that side of the line than the other.

  • Colleen

    I absolutely agree. I’ve always figured that anyone who is in such dire straits as to be able to discard all dignity like that deserves a break. Even if it’s an alcohol-induced break. Who am I to judge?

  • jill

    Why’d you do it Heather..? Why’d you make me go and cry on a Thursday afternoon?

  • Kiley

    Heather, I agree with you completely. I cannot drive by someone without giving them money (especially if they have a dog with them — that’s the clincher!).

    Very good topic; perhaps we can have more like this?

    P.S. Love the new photos of Leta! She’s so gorgeous!

  • emilie

    i’m sure this will be one of many stories that other people have shared. but when i was about 15 i went with my father to paris to celebrate my birthday — that in itself says enough about how lucky i have been in my life. we were eating lunch a little shop and there was a homeless man across the street with a sign up that said (in french of course): “blind, please spare some change.” i had had some spending cash my dad had given me, so after the lunch i walked over to him and dropped like, 10 francs into his cup. and my dad was kind of shocked he was like, emilie, that’s 10 francs! that’s a lot. and i said something to the effect of, that’s like 6 american dollars, and he obviously needs it a lot more than i do. to this day, my father still remembers that and doesn’t let me forget it, because he tells me everytime i do anything remotely selfless to remind me to stay that way. cheesy, i know, but it’s a good story to hear about yourself when you want to be inspired to keep doing good for others.

    thank you for sharing your story, it was even more inspiring.

  • Dori

    I also get ‘impulses” when I see certain people asking for money. It’s some sort of instant connection and before I know it I’m opening my wallet for them. For some reason it doesn’t happen to everyone, just certain people. Not sure what it is, I just get a deep gut feeling that they TRULY need it.

  • Annie

    That was a very warm story! It always makes me want to cry to think about those people that hit a hard spot in there life and are trying to get by the best way they can. It hurts to know that people that use the money to buy drugs ruin it for these people, and they are looked down upon as drug addicts.

  • ritabby


  • Lyla

    Wow, what a good man your brother is.

    I never give money to homeless people on the street because I don’t feel safe pulling out my wallet on a street corner. However, when I can afford to, I will definitely buy somebody a burger or a sandwich and I’ll buy their dog a can of food.

    The overwhelming appreciation I get for a cup of coffee or 2 fish fillet sandwiches from McDonalds breaks my heart every time. I cannot even fathom being in a position where it might have been the only thing I’ve had to eat in days.

  • Sharon

    About a year ago, I was asked to do an interview as part of an inspirational woman of the month series. The question was:

    Tell us about a particularly memorable accomplishment.Tell us about a particularly memorable accomplishment.

    and my answer:

    I really don’t like to pick “one” memorable accomplishment or moment. I think it puts a lot of pressure on ourselves to have to do something big. Each and every day I do my best to do things that will help others whether it is someone I know or a stranger on the street. This morning, I looked after my neighbour’s daughter so she could go to her son’s parent/teacher interview. Then a little later on, while I was waiting at a Tim Horton’s drive-through, a woman tapped on my window. She was crying and obviously distressed. She told me she was at a woman’s shelter for women who are leaving abusive situations and she needed $5.00. Yes, there was a part of me that thought she might be lying. But instead of sending her away, I gave her $20.00 and told her that when she was in a better position in her life, to pass the kindness along. If was all focus on doing small things and looking at those things as accomplishments, we would be living in a much better place.

    I”m in complete agreement with you – whenever I go against my gut instinct and do what I feel I should do – whenever I listen to my brain and not my heart – I regret it.

  • Manda

    Awesome story Heather! Your brother seems like a really fantastic guy!

  • Katie B.

    Oh, and PPS. I didn’t mean that I wish I would question all…I meant that I wouldn’t question anyone and give without questioning for the sake of giving. That’s all. OK, bye.

  • Lisa

    Your brother ROCKS. Just the wanting the rose for his sister that he hadn’t seen in a long time made my heart melt…and his gesture to the man–and the humility behind it–well, next time you see Ranger, please give him an extra hug from me.

    Thanks for keeping stories like this in front of us during hard times. We must never lose sight that someone else ALWAYS has it harder than we do. And if we respond the way we would want to be responded to–heck, that makes all the difference in the world.

  • carolyn

    this really inspires me, heather. thank you.

  • Robyn

    What a wonderful post Heather. Your brother has given you a gift beyond measure and now you’ve passed it on to all of us. I’ll make sure I live up to it. Thanks.

  • cd

    You might enjoy this column by Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle…he does a version of this every December, called “The Untied Way” (not a typo!):

  • Kath

    My gut reaction, even when I’m flat broke myself, is to hand over anything in my pockets to anyone who asks.

    My dear friend’s dad was homeless and mentally ill, and before I knew this about her, I handed a $10 bill to a homeless guy on the corner. She choked up and thanked me, and then told me that her dad was homeless, and it really bothers her when people pass by and don’t even look at the homeless guys.

    Even if I don’t have any change, I make eye contact and give people a sincere smile. Just acknowledging that they’re people too, helps me feel better.

    I have acquaintences who have berated me in the past for handing over money to people I don’t know. That is a dealbreaker for me – if you don’t have enough compassion to understand why I choose to give them a tiny bit of money, you aren’t worthy of my friendship.

    Amen, sister. Your brother is awesome, and so are you.

  • Cordy at mysuperhopelessromance

    This is wonderful. Yet ANOTHER reason to send fan email. :)

  • Kristina C.

    Amen, sister Heather!

    I usually am a giver, even when my more cynical husband protests.

    I always remember the saying my Dad taught me, “There but for the grace of God go I”.

  • Wendy

    Once my daughter (who was 5 or so at the time) gave money to a guy on the street (I let her hand it to him). For the rest of the day, she became this super kid. We went to the grocery store and she helped get stuff off the shelves (and not just candy, but things I actually wanted). Then when I was paying, she actually started bagging groceries herself. She was pretty little, so she was lifting her hands up over her head to reach the conveyor belt. And she was so happy and chatty and it was amazing to watch. My point is that for the most part, helping others really is a form of helping ourselves.

  • Homeless Friendly

    “Hey Buddy, are you homeless friendly?” The scraggly man was riding a bike and I had just finished doing laundry at a Laundromat, the kind where they spelled it upside down.

    “Yes, I am actually” I chuckled my response. His opening line had me. I gave him the 10 dollar bill I had and he said, “God Bless You.” It something I’ve heard from almost every person I’ve given money to and let me tell you, I am the KING of the homeless and crazy. They are drawn to me.

    I have so many stories of people coming up to me asking me for money and if I have it, I always give it without hesitation – even when they ask for bus fair, a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a pack of Newport Kings.

  • Nancy

    Ranger sounds like a great guy who made a wonderful, lasting impression on his sister at a very impressionable age. I’m glad you had him as a role model.
    I have a hard time handing cash to people begging on the street. I can’t get past the idea that they will use it to further destroy their and/or their family’s lives–and that I contributed to that destruction. Some say the ‘comfort’ of another drink or another hit is worth it. But where are they the next morning…in the same desperate situation, if not worse. Instead, I suggest they visit the soup kitchen where I volunteer. I help deliver Meals on Wheels. I adopt a needy family during the holidays and gift them with warm clothes and food. I donate directly to people in legitimate need who I read about in the local newspaper or hear about through colleagues and friends. I believe in helping others, but I put in the time to make sure that my help will make their lives better instead of contributing to their misery.

  • Kuluvuyo

    I live in Africa and find this whole thing fascinating. Americans have a very interesting way of viewing poverty and what it means to contribute towards it’s solution. Thanks for making my day more fascinating and interesting!

  • exactlythat

    D ~ So behind your harsh/raw exterior there is a warm heart! I hope Leta gets to experience those kind of examples too. Great story, D, great story.

  • Liz

    You never know what kind of positive influence you can be. Not only did Ranger give that man $20, but he changed your life, and I really doubt he realized it at the time. It would be nice if we could all get over ourselves and the “what if’s” and give a little more each day.

  • Thinky

    This made me tear up, in a good way as well.

    I have a similar memory of my little sister who can be a royal PITA except she is one of the most giving people I know.

    We were coming back from the mall and the local firefighters were trying to “fill the boot” for charity.

    I scrounged up the pennies, nickles and dimes (not quarters!) from my console and threw them in the boot. She whipped out a $20 and tossed it in the boot.

    Why didn’t that occur to me?

    Another time we were in Houston near where she lives and all weekend we kept seeing this homeless man with a dog begging. I kept thinking about all the Dateline specials about how “those people” make six-figures tax free and tried to ignore him at the light. Mandy pulled into a gas station and bought him a bag of dog food.

    How does one sibling end up thinking like that and the other like me? I wish I could be more like her in that respect.

  • MamaLana

    Thank you, Dooce.

  • hopelds

    Thank you.

  • Dave

    Much like you I had such an influence – My Mother – who, even though we didn’t have much went out of her way to make a difference in someone else’s life. I try to emulate her as much as I can.

    Last month I was in D.C. for a conference and before I left decided to walk around the city before heading back to the airport. I walked past several seemingly homeless people but one in particular tugged at my heart. I had stopped at a popular sandwich shop that’s unavailable in my hometown of Atlanta and grabbed a few for the trip home. Something told me to share my treat with this homeless man in line at hot-dog cart. I walked past him, turned around and headed back, but by then he had moved to the front of the line and was about to order. At that point I stopped and continued on my way out of town.

    I don’t know why I didn’t go with my gut and get to him before he ordered but the fact that I didn’t still gnaws at me today.

    If more of us responded like your brother and my mother the world would be a much better place.

    Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, I’ve got a 55-month-old. Boy are they interesting!

  • Stephanie

    I have a friend who worked a lot with people without homes in the past. She shared two great pieces of insight with me in the first few months after I’d met her:
    1. They’re people first. No matter what you’re talking about–autism, homeless, adopted–they’re people first. Which is why I won’t call them “homeless people” anymore. That puts the homeless first.
    2. Don’t discriminate. Guessing whether someone really will use the money for food or drugs instead isn’t a fair judgement. In fact, it’s a discriminatory judgement. She suggested instead to devise a plan and stick to it. Give money to everyone or not at all. My personal choice has been to give food if I have it to someone begging. That way I KNOW what the end result will be: That person will get fed. If I don’t have food, I appologize for not having any. My friend has gone as far as taking people to lunch with her, but I am not as gracious as she. Either way, she’s been a great influence in my life and I know she’d want me to share her ideas with you.

    I love your blog! Keep up the good fight :)

  • Kelly

    my husband yells at me whenever i stop to give someone money. i don’t do it for every person i see, but i can’t stop myself when it’s especially nasty day. it’s almost like an impulse. anyway, i would love it if you stopped by my blog!

  • bearing

    “Give to the one who asks of you.” Matthew 5:24, the Beatitudes.

    That’s all it says. No “…if you are sure he’s not going to buy drugs” about it; no “as long as he’s grateful” about it. No strings attached, nothing but asking.

    The verse doesn’t say what to give. Maybe you give what is asked for; maybe you give something different. If anything the context suggests that you should give something MORE than what’s asked for.

    But it definitely rules out staring straight ahead and pretending that beggars don’t exist, as much as we might like to do that.

    You might think it odd, but it was reading Pope Benedict’s encyclical God Is Love that drove home to me the point never, ever to ignore a beggar again. Even if for some reason I choose not to hand anything out the window — I force myself to look him or her in the eye, make human contact. Unbelievable how hard that can be sometimes — unbelievable what living in the city long enough does to you.

  • Missy

    Hug your brother for me. What a passionate human being he is. There are a LOT of people that could really learn compassion and caring from him…. He is a good man! Fantastic story!

  • Anonymous


    Thanks for the reminder.

  • Mindy

    I never comment on here, but this post was wonderful. It struck me especially since this past Sunday our pastor was talking about the very same thing. Your brother sounds like a remarkable person. I am sure what you said here means a lot to him.

  • jen

    that story was beautiful.
    my husband has always been the guy that hands a $20 to someone on a street corner, too. one evening, a man told us a tale about needing an alarm clock and my husband handed him everything in his pocket…much more than the alarm clock i’m sure.
    no questions.
    no comments.
    that was when i really fell in love.
    it is such an awesome sight to see people helping others. isn’t it?