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.