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.

  • bre

    Growing up in the Midwest I rarely was exposed to homelessness, except for when going to “the big city.” Then I lived in San Diego for several years after graduating from college and my world changed. Yes, the sheer number of homeless people in my area made it impossible to give to everyone, but I gave to those I could and especially to families. I also joined a church that had a homelessness assistance program and I came to realize homelessness is about so much more than economics. It’s about health care, illness, safety nets, housing prices, family structure, effects of war, and society as a whole. Homelessness is political–not democrat/republican political–but a reflection of the larger problems our society faces, political.

    It’s not a simple problem and there are no simple answers. But, there is nothing wrong with sharing what you have with those in need. In fact, I wish our country did a little more of that.

  • Meg

    All you people who think homelessness is a choice disgust me. It’s not a choice. And not all homeless people are lazy–in fact, most aren’t. At least 25% of the homeless in this country are employed. They just don’t make enough money to put down a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment, or they are too busy trying to support their families– keep them fed and clothed. And you know what? Not everyone who wants a job can easily get one. There is a stigma that comes with being homeless that can make it difficult to find work. But in the job market right now, it’s hard for even highly educated people to find work. I have a graduate degree and I have been applying for jobs since last May. I have even applied for those jobs at McDonalds. They tell me I am overqualified-even when I dumb down my resume. I have one part-time job, but that does not provide me with nearly enough to make ends meet. There are plenty of people in this country who would love to work, who are hard workers and still can’t find jobs. And even if you can get a job at the local Burger King (or a job holding a sign), do you have any idea how much that job pays? Not enough to get one person out of poverty or to support a family. Not enough to pay for health insurance. Many of us are lucky enough to have strong support systems– close friends and family who can help us when we fall on hard times. But not everyone is so lucky. Sure, there are people who cheat the system, but the vast majority of homeless people do not, and we shouldn’t let them fall by the wayside. Homelessness is not a choice.

  • Angie

    Great story! Thanks for making my pregnant butt cry once again today!

  • http://laureality.blogspot.com Lauryn

    That was not at all what I thought you meant by your original post. I had actually been applying it to politics all week and sharing it with some of my friends, because I thought it was an interesting perspective to take. Obviously it’s a great concept that can be applied to many different situations.

    Beautiful story.

  • thehammer

    Dude probably DID have change for a twenty, you dummy. Duh. Nevertheless, I’ve given money to people I was 99% positive were telling me a line of bull. It’s only money.

  • pam

    I don’t have someone like that who inspired me but I’ve been broke and hungry and have always been helped. Now that I can I have the impulse to give to whomever asks. Does that make me a Rube? Probably. Do I care? No I do not.

  • Badsanta

    I was curious as to why you asked that question. Thanks for sharing. It’s a great story. I drive truck for a living and the truck stops are full of people seeking handouts, apparently they think we drivers make good money, and I have gotten pretty good at telling who is really down and out and who is just scamming. The scammers usually start out by telling you some outrageous story but the people who truly need your help can barely look you in the eyes due to the shame they have for themselves. I always try to do my best and help out somehow because I always see myself in them. Not all are on the streets due to drugs and alcohol. Mental health issues plague many of them but just a run of bad luck after more bad luck puts many of them on the streets. And that can happen to any of us at any time. I’m a short time reader to your blog but love it. Thanks

  • http://www.allegrasrose.blogspot.com Michele

    I lived in NYC for nearly 20 years. As you can imagine, it was more than 5 times or more a day that you encounter a homeless person on the street. If I gave even a dollar to every homeless person on the street..I would have been homeless. But something an old beau of mine taught me was that I can honor and respect the homeless. If at one moment in time I can help, I do…if I can’t at least say something to the person..”I’m sorry I can’t help you today” or at times I’ve had lunch and I’ve given it to them…or one time I gave my gloves to a homeless person because I knew they needed them more than I did – I had another pair at home.

    We are all so afraid, guilt-ridden and sometimes bitter at the homeless, at the immigrants looking to make money on the street corner and the truth is they’re human just like us and we could be or some of us have been there or close to that point. We don’t have to save everyone, we don’t have to give to everyone, but we can do what we can when we can. Sometimes a smile can do as much as a dollar….just to feel respected and honored.

    My daughter and I had to drive across country a couple of years back..basically kicked out of her father’s apartment with $250 in our pockets and we had to make it to Arizona from Florida. We ran out of money and gas at a town just on the New Mexico side of the border of Arizona. Ashamed I didn’t know what to do. I started asking people for money for gas and the reactions were mostly horrendous — the looks on people’s faces and the fear and rage that came over them was terrifying to me. I was willing to do that rather than face the reactions of my family ….until I realized the reactions from those strangers was worse. I finally called my sister to wire me money ….I was afraid she wouldn’t but I was wrong…and mind you 2 years before this incident I made a six figure income….so you just never know…………………………………………

  • Jessie

    THank you Heather, once again, for sharing a little piece of your life with me. (I say me because every time i read your blog it feels like your speaking directly to me). I cried with joy reading this, and am truly grateful that there are people in the world like you, and your brother. As depressed as I am today, i cried with happiness. Thank you!

  • Wynema

    This is why I love visiting your website. You are not only funny as hell, but insightful.

  • AK

    Two years ago, I get to an ATM and I see a card still in the slot, and the machine asking if I want another transaction (the person who coded that ATM’s software should be shot). And I couldn’t resist. I said yes, and I withdrew $60 from the person’s account. Why? I don’t know. I didn’t need the money, but I felt like doing it because I could I guess. Anyway, as soon as the money came out, I felt awful. I hit no when it asked again, left the card on the counter (wasn’t a debit, only an ATM card) and left.

    I didn’t sleep very well that night. The next morning, it was about 5 degrees with a wind chill below zero. I was walking my usual route to work, and I passed a homeless guy who has been there every day for the 6 years I’ve been working at my current location. I always thought to myself, why can’t this guy get a job. At least he is dependable (I think I can count on one hand the times he hasn’t been there).

    Well, I hope he used that $60 for a warm place to sleep that night.

  • http://nycmomandmore.blogspot.com Marinka

    Great story.

    I read “Travels with Lizbeth” years ago, a memoir by a man who became homeless (I think because of medical bills). He wrote that many people were often worried that if they gave him money when he was panhandling, he’d spend it on liquor and drugs. And really? Many of us drink to “take the edge off” at the end of a relatively stress-free day, certainly stress-free when compared to being homeless. It made me more cautious about being so judgmental. Just a little.

  • http://revdrmom.blogspot.com Rev Dr Mom

    That was an awesome thing for your brother to do.

    When I lived in NYC I grappled with this question, and I finally decided pretty much what you said…it’s not my place to second guess or judge what someone does with the money. I hope that it helps in some small way.

    I still get grief about being “too generous” when someone comes to the church looking for help. I’d rather err on the side of generosity, personally.

  • Kate

    Strange coming from internet world I know… but everyday Heather I fall more in love with you and your family. Your humour, compassion, and errily similar outlook on life makes me proud do be a green-loving liberal! I know good people, with good hearts will prevail as long as we don’t lose faith in fact that we’re doing what’s right….

  • http://www.jenbutneverjenn.blogspot.com/ Jen

    I think that’s a very nice story, but I don’t feel the same way.

    I give homeless people a polite acknowledgement (I loathe it when people ignore them or are rude), but I give my money to social service charities and vote for politicians that care about poverty. To me, that’s the difference between change and spare change.

  • http://cheneymabel.com Cheney

    Certainly I don’t give away money to every needy person I come across.. I am not sure what makes people pick and choose who they give to. Once I was in NYC on St. Marks Place and a man walked up to me and a friend of mine. He got right up close to me, didn’t look particularly down on his luck or anything, but he said: “I’ll give you a joke or a song, cause I don’t want to just take a dollar from you for nothing.”

    We chose a song, and he sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” through the first two verses, and we gave him ten dollars, and it is still to this day my favorite New York City moment.

    Your whole family is awesome :-)

  • http://thisisitseriously.blogspot.com Melissa Kairuz

    To #617 – not all homeless people are out there b/c they are too lazy to get off their asses. In fact, it’s quite difficult to get a job when you don’t have an address. Not even McDonald’s will hire you when you can’t give them a mailing address. And to my knowledge, you’re not allowed to use a homeless shelter as your address. Sort of a catch-22, don’t you think?

    Also, I feel like it’s usually pretty easy to tell which people are, in fact, needy and which ones are just looking for an easy handout. If you’re asking me for money and your clothes are in better shape than mine and you have a manicure, then no, I will not help. But if you seem truly desperate, and I believe there is a way of knowing when someone is, then yes, I will.

    As many times as I have given money to someone begging, just as many times I haven’t. Sometimes I feel like I made the right choice, and sometimes I regret my decision.

  • http://rajencreation.wordpress.com/ Rachel

    yep, what you said.

  • http://www.janniefunster.com Jannie

    I should give a lot more than I do.

  • Anonymous

    I thought I left a comment last night quoting from the Book of Mormon, but since it’s not here I’ll have to assume that either you delete such things, or there were technical difficulties on my end. If it’s the former case, I guess I should have figured you might not appreciate Book of Mormon quotes here. I kind of did figure it, but was testing to be sure. (Live and learn.)

    When I returned to Belgium as a tourist about a year after serving an LDS mission there, a girl somewhere near my age approached me at a train station with a story about being stranded and needing money for a train fare. She was shaking and scrawny and I figured she probably was wanting a fix. I don’t think I gave her any money (although I can’t recall for sure.) But I did have a few minutes before my train came, and I had already wanted to buy myself some frites at the stand next to the train station. (Belgian frites, in case you haven’t heard, are the best French fries on the planet.) So when I bought my paper cone of frites, I got one for her as well. Not the most nutritious thing, but it was what was handy, and I guess I thought a small gesture was better than nothing. As I went to give them to her, a well-dressed woman tried to protect me from my naivete by saying, loudly, something like “She’s a drug addict! Don’t give her anything!”

    I just ignored the rude woman. The girl thanked me profusely, and before my train came I did see that she ate all of her frites — devoured them, actually.

  • Jessie

    Just noticed i totally repeated myself with that last comment. I know that will probably bug the crap out of you. Sorry, i should have previewed that comment.

  • Jessica Canadiana

    I’ve always considered giving panhandlers money a form of harm reduction. If you don’t want to give someone money because they might use it for drugs, think again. If they have an addiction, they WILL get that money. Be it through prostitution, breaking into someone’s house, beating someone up for their money. If you have it, and would willingly give it if you knew they’d spend it on something ‘good’, for goodness sake GIVE THEM THE MONEY! It’ll prevent them from doing something more dangerous to themselves or others to get it.

  • http://blissfullthinking.wordpress.com michelle

    oh my. i thought you were going to tell us that your brother was a crack addict.

    but, alas…no, he’s just cool.

    and while i didn’t voice my opinion earlier…i tend to err on the side of hope too…any one of us could take a step off the edge for any number of reasons and end up needing help from kind strangers. who knows how they got to that place – even the crack addicts didn’t start out crack addicts.

  • Yana

    I totally agree.

    I go nuts when I hear people say “I will not vote Democrat, because they give my money to lazy people”.

  • http://ruffinism.blogspot.com Susan Ruffin

    Give the money, never look back. Pay it forward, heart bursting, anonymous, the giving feeling is the highest high in the world.

  • Lauren

    This story about made me cry. Thank you for posting it and reminding me to not be so harsh towards people. ~ L

  • http://smallfox.typepad.com Sarah

    You make me wish I was rich, just so I would have something to give away.

  • http://liberalmormonthatcould.blogspot.com Lisa

    Absolutely.

    I, too, grew up with parents who taught me to never give money to a beggar/homeless man. If I was to give anything, it needed to be something like food so that person could not take my hard-earned cash to perpetuate his alcoholism or meth habit.

    Then I met my husband who taught me it’s not my responsibility to assume how a person will use charity. It’s just my responsiilty to treat a person the way I’d like to be treated, to always give someone the benefit of the doubt.

    Thank you for this story. I will definitely share with friends and family and link to it on my blog.

  • echoroc

    I hope the assholes who accused you of trying to push some liberal agenda feel like dicks now.

  • http://www.raisingsteamboat.blogspot.com/ Tracy

    I really respect your point of view. I used to share this view, but unfortunately after working in social work for the last four years I’ve become jaded. I now know from experience that four out of five times you try to help someone out and give them money or resources they use it in some way that isn’t in their (or their childrens) best interest. It used to be enough that the one person did, now I find myself being really angry that the majority don’t.

    It is nice to read things like this and know that not everyone shares my crappy, pessimistic, burned out point of view. I hope to find my way back to your side one way or another.

  • http://charlottepictures.blogspot.com orangina

    Read it twice today. Cried both times. Thank you.

  • Ann

    That was a beautiful story about the true nature of compassion. I hope it inspires people to be more compassionate – not only to homeless people in the US but to people in Africa as well. For many of them, the lives of even homeless people would seem luxurious.
    To read more about a group that is doing amazing work:

    http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org/whatwedo.htm

    Read about the grandmothers and your heart will be torn asunder.

  • http://allolune.blogspot.com Elli

    It’s posts like this one that restore my faith in humanity. Seriously…sometimes the internet brings you just what you need.

  • http://.carriesbusyblog.blogspot.com Carrie

    That was truly beautiful and a wonderful insight- I hope perhaps one day I can leave a twenty for someone who can surely use it more than I- for whatever need be

  • Jodie

    Great story! My parents taught me to give my time for good causes by giving me an allowance while I volunteered at a hospital instead of working while I was in high school. I found out about giving money later on.

  • Kristen

    Thank you! What a great example your brother’s story is to all of us…

  • http://granbyafterdark.blogspot.com Terry

    Yeah, what they said!

  • http://labott.blogspot.com Laura

    “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.”

    Well said! I struggle with the decision myself but this has got me thinking deeper.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.lulusaysit.com/ Lulu

    WHATTTTTTTTTTTTT???!!!

    haha, no i think it was a good thing to do.

    I know of some people who used to drive thru downtown vancouver and pelt pennies at beggars..

  • http://pamelotta.blogspot.com Pamelotta

    Wow. You got me to delurk. I absolutely agree with you and your brother. And I’ll go a step further and say that our government has nothing to do with it because if each and every one of us gave, not when we felt guilty, but when we knew in our hearts we should, we would not need the government to bail anyone out of anything. We would take care of each other the way we were intended to do.

    And it’s not too overwhelming a burden because it’s not always the right time. Each one of us knows when it’s the right time.

  • Molly

    My friends and I used to think we were hot shit in high school when we would take the bus down from our neighborhood to the big university’s campus. Around that time we developed a policy of just emptying our pockets out to whoever asked us for change (only around this part of town did we ever encounter panhandling). I think I can honestly point to this as coming out of the good work done by the Catholic schools we were usually skipping out on at the time.

    Anyway, that died a while ago, as I started living in cities where I’m asked for change several times a day. A) I got lazy, B) I got more afraid of stopping to open a wallet, especially after getting held up around here recently, and the latest, C) is that I have an alcoholic brother. Just this summer my family has finally confronted the decades of open-handedness that have fed both our savior complexes and his habit. Only when we finally sought help for ourselves (we’ll see if it ever helps him), and heard that if we want him to get better–or just stop making our lives miserable with worry (evictions, lost jobs)–we have to refuse him money. No money, no gas for his car, no cigarettes, no free meals. We have enabled him his whole life, and it’s been an amazing journey to see that before we can ever hope of helping him we have to cure our own addiction of believing that we can show our love through open pockets.

    Now, I know that a family member is not a stranger; that the personal is not always the social, but I look at my neighbors sitting in their usual spots asking for change and see my brother, and his possible future if we finally get the strength to really cut him off. And I feel torn about giving them money, when I know it’s finally time to stop giving it to my brother. But you know, maybe it’s different with families and addiction. Maybe I’d be glad to know some stranger who he’ll never see again and who he can’t rely on to love him like we do will throw him a buck when he’s still deciding whether or not to take step one and admit that his life is out of control. He still deserves to eat in the interim.

  • Jan

    Thanks – you made a difference today.

  • keagansmom

    Last Christmas I was at the grocery store, and didn’t have enough money to buy all the food in my cart. I went to the service desk, and the elderly woman ahead of me overheard me telling the cashier that I needed to return some items. Without even blinking she said, “What? What do you need? How much?” When the service lady answered, “She’s short 17 dollars”, the woman handed over a $20. I, of course, started bawling right there in the store, and the woman just patted my arm and said, “Someday, when you have it, you give it to someone else”.
    Throughout my whole life, if someone needed something, anything at all, I gave it. Someday, when things are better, I will do that again.
    Call it Karma, paying it forward, whatever you like. If we all did it, wouldn’t the world be so much better?

  • sara

    I tend to buy gift certificates from a number of lower-cost restaurants (Wendys, for example) and hand those out instead.

    I do prefer to err on the side of charity.

    Your brother is a wise sweet man.

  • http://shannamurray.typepad.com/ shanna murray

    thanks for sharing this, heather. it was really good to hear on a day that i’m feeling much too cynical.

  • Anonymous

    Thinking about this and it’s just occurred to me that I’d hate to have someone scrutinize every dollar I spend. I don’t spend money on crack–thank God–but I certainly don’t spend it all wisely. So if I am to give some away, who am I to judge if the recipient uses it the way I’d like them to? thanks for prompting the thoughts.

  • MomOfTwins

    I can count on 1 hand the number of times I have given money. I’m struggling myself, I don’t have any to give. Yet, the other day while waiting at a red, in 100+ temperatures (So. Cal) and old man just tugged at my heart. He was hunched over and when he walked, it was obvious he had some type of disability. I reached in my pocket, handed him everything I had as I drove by. It felt good to help him.

  • Jen

    I live in DC, and the homeless are so prevalent around here that I confess to having become used to seeming them, to the point that I’ve almost stopped seeing them. If that makes sense.

    One day a couple of years ago, I was walking by a man sitting on the ground and he had a sign that said “Please help even though I’m worthless.”

    I walked by and didn’t say anything. But at the next street corner I started to cry at the very idea of how callous I’d become. I walked back and held out $5 instead of putting it in his cup and when he finally made eye contact I just said “You’re not worthless.”

    I felt more human in that moment that in any since, honestly.

  • Niv

    Hey Heather , I’ve been reading your blog for at least for a couple of years without fail. But i’ve never commented because every comment would have been ” You’re a great writer” and this is something you’ve already known.

    The stuffs you write is something i cant always relate to because I’m in a hot country , I dont have a kid or a husband , Sarah Palin doesn’t change the fact that i need to still live in my country till i decide otherwise , and i’m not much a animal person ( though i want to change that !) and i don’t have brothers or sisters. whatever said and done all your stories leaves an impact right after i finish reading them. Laughter , A smile or a grin.

    But this entry today has changed a part of me as well. And today the impact is -WOW.Thanks for that.

    Ps, You’re a great writer. ;)

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Perfect answer.

    The late, great NBC show “Sports Night” featured something along these lines, with the old producer telling the young sportscaster how he gave whatever was in his pocket to the bums he saw on the streets of NYC. When the young guy questioned this, asking “what if he just spends it on booze,” the older guy responded “I hope he spends it on booze,” going on to say that most of these guys were a step away from the end of the line, and anything that helped them get through the night was a blessing.