Anne Notations

Friday, May 25, 2007

Harden not my heart

During the Great Depression hobos developed a sign language - symbols scratched onto doorposts and in the dirt - to apprise fellow homeless travelers of hazards and havens along the way. A cat pictograph on a gate meant "A kind lady lives here," indicating that a meal or other kindness would be offered if the weary traveler but knocked and asked.

I aspire to be that kind lady. Every time I want to turn my back on a bum extending his hand - and instinctively I do flinch away - I hear the small, insistent voice of my humanity, not to mention my Christian faith, prodding me to respond. Jesus was pretty clear about it: "As you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me." There's no wiggle room there. The brother or sister who asks for our help or our cash may be ill-spoken, dirty, substance-addicted, odoriferous, or otherwise repulsive, but that's no excuse for not helping, not giving.

The sad reality, however, is that today there are sound reasons to ignore a beggar's pitch. When we give indiscriminately, we may be enabling a destructive habit, encouraging dependence, or even putting ourselves and our families at risk. Two summers ago I was out one evening weeding the front gardens when a woman in her mid-50s approached. She admired my flowers, then waved a tattered flyer at me and explained that she was collecting donations for a walk for breast cancer research, and that she herself was a cancer survivor. She smiled and looked me in the eye, eager and friendly.

My gut told me that flyer had been fished out of a trash can and pressed into service. I sensed that this woman had "issues," as we say euphemistically, and that she probably needed cash to support a drug or booze addiction. But she was desperate enough to try this clumsy ruse, so I went inside and came back with a $20 bill. She thanked me profusely.

End of self-congratulatory tale? Of course not. The same woman returned to our house more than once in the following weeks. She needed a loan. She needed more money for the cancer walk. She might have to go to the hospital and had no insurance. Once she brought a seedy-looking friend who stared appraisingly through the screened door into our living room. I turned her down, but I had given once and she knew I was soft. One night Michael answered the door. He told the woman never to return or he would call the police. I felt safer after that. I had learned a lesson.

Yesterday during lunchtime our doorbell rang. A middle-aged woman I had never seen before, dressed in baggy shorts and flip-flops, stood on our porch. "Oh, you're not the same lady," she said softly. "I used to do some work for a lady who lived here." I explained that we'd lived here for nine years. She seemed flustered. "The other lady used to hire me sometimes," she said, meeting my eyes. I told her the previous owners had moved to Israel 10 years ago. Still she stood before me. Finally she dropped her pretense: "I need some money," she mumbled, looking at her toes. "Do you have any work I could do for five dollars?"

My mind raced like a nervous rabbit: She'll keep coming back. She's casing our house. She's looking for an easy mark. "I'm sorry," I said. "I gave money to a woman once and she wouldn't leave us alone, so I don't do that anymore." I mentioned the Baptist church two blocks away, thinking perhaps someone could help if she was truly in need. I wished her good luck, and closed the door.

"I don't do that anymore."

Driving back to work, I felt terrible. A stranger had come to my house and asked for help, and I had turned her away. What would it have cost me to give her five dollars, even 10 dollars? Perhaps a small portion of my peace of mind. What if she was truly broke? Who would help me if one day I wandered alone, destitute and frightened? Would I knock on a door in desperation only to be refused?

There must be a middle ground between being a patsy and giving whenever you're asked. My friend Sarah wrote eloquently about this quandary some years ago and concluded that for her there is, indeed, a defining principle: "Giving a little is such a small, simple thing that not doing it becomes grotesque," she wrote. "Where is it written that a person must earn compassion, anyway?"

I cannot get yesterday's unexpected visitor out of my mind. I wish compassion had prevailed over cynicism and fear when she asked me for five dollars. "If today you hear My voice," advises the psalm, "harden not your hearts." Once again I have learned a lesson - the right one, I think. Or, at the least, one I can live with.

ADDENDUM: There is a wonderful sentence in the comment NOLAcathie left in response to this post: "What someone does with what he/she has been given is not really important...our intention to offer help is." (italics mine)


  • This is a very difficult question and I agree that we should try to rid ourselves of any cynicism and open our hearts. What someone does with what he/she has been given is not really important...our intention to offer help is.

    A man once came to my door asking for money saying he was hungry. I didn't have any cash around at that time, but prepared a bag of food for him to take. He accepted it. I watched from the window as he walked away throwing it all out on my front lawn, piece by piece. I was disillusioned but not daunted. I don't give to everyone who asks, but I do try to keep Jesus' words in my heart. We are called on to take care of the "least" and so far as a nation and as humans, it appears that we are failing. The immense poverty in this wealthy country breaks my heart.

    By Blogger NOLAcathie, at Sat May 26, 10:27:00 AM EDT  

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