Should We Stop for Those With Signs?

When I first saw someone with a Will Work For Food sign, I was so anxious to help that I nearly screeched to a stop. But then I began seeing more people with similar signs, and now there are so many that I no longer stop.  That generally makes me feel guilty because maybe some of those people genuinely need my help. I saw a man at a freeway entrance not long ago and wondered about my choice. When I met his glazed over eyes, I hesitated, but then continued. It’s a dilemma. In fact, when it comes to giving I’m a split personality. I’m the priest in Les Miserables, but other times I’m the constable.

As a landlady, it’s easy to become cynical. My husband and I have worked for many years, gone without, and have saved and so that we now have a little extra and are in a position where we can help others out. Sometimes tenants have genuine financial emergencies because of situations out of their control. We do our best to work with them. Then there are those who can’t pay rent because they’ve just bought a brand new truck and/or camper, or because they’ve gone on an expensive trip. To be honest, I feel a little less sorry for them. But even then I find myself thinking, well, haven’t I done dumb things and haven’t we all made financial mistakes? Often they have children who played no part in their parents’ decisions. Again, we try to go ahead and work things out with them. But after that the question becomes, at what point should we stop helping and at what point do we just refer them to the rental agreement? There have been times when we’ve just felt we needed to say, Sorry, we can’t do this anymore.

My daughter and son-in-law always go to great lengths to help those in need. They take destitute-looking people with them to lunch and treat them with respect and kindness. But then, not long ago, my daughter called me and said she felt “disillusioned.” She’d just seen a particular “Struggling Single Mom”  she’d often helped out, shopping in her grocery store. The woman had a guy with a ring at her side and their cart was piled high with non-necessities my daughter rarely buys because she can’t afford them. I felt sad for my daughter, but also sad for the woman who did not seem to see any problem with using the money she got from others for things she didn’t really need. I know; I know. That’s being judgmental.

Again, it’s complicated. If we adhere to Christianity, we want to be like Jesus who not only spent his life serving, but who died for us. We’re told to love our neighbor and reserve judgments for God.  Just about every religion asks us to live at least some form of the golden rule, and almost everybody, even those who do not believe in any particular religion, or even in God, believes in that rule.

When it comes to our government the dilemma is just as real. Should our government help all who ask for help? What if we as a country no longer have enough to give? Should we keep giving if we have to borrow in order to do that?

I can honestly say that it makes me happy when I give generously.  I need to give more to my church’s charitable fund which seems to investigate carefully where needs are greatest. I try to contribute to reputable organizations such as The Children’s Fund because I like what they stand for as well. I always feel a strong urgency to be discerning, however. Before I give to a cause I  try to find out what percentage actually goes to those in need.  I try to find out as well if the group I’m contributing to helps people to eventually become self-reliant, teaches them to fish, rather than just giving them fishes, in other words. Is asking these questions being judgmental or is it using good judgment?  The other day I didn’t investigate anything. I just wrote a check after one of those commercials for children with cleft palates. I couldn’t resist when I saw a child’s excitement at her beautiful new smile.

I need to be more sensitive as well to those around me who may be in need. Not everybody who needs help is out on a street corner with a sign. There are other kinds of signs and I need to look for them. Sometimes we need to read between the lines.

In a parking lot recently a woman with a baby in a stroller approached me. She wanted to know if I had any money to spare. She needed to find a place to live, she said, and claimed she’d fallen between the cracks. She was on some waiting lists, but it wasn’t as easy to get into some of those places as we’d all like to believe, she told me. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, and had the feeling I was being scammed, but I wasn’t completely sure. If she wasn’t telling the truth, she was a good actress. She knew exactly what to say and that made me suspicious.  But there was the baby looking at me with large brown eyes. “I usually don’t do this when people approach me,” I said. But then I sighed and pulled out my wallet. “I don’t know if you are telling the truth,” I said. “But just in case you are, I’ll help you.”

I guess I will never know if the woman was being honest. I don’t like to be scammed, and she could easily have walked away and thought, Ha, another chump! I’ve decided not to worry about it. It doesn’t matter to me that much. As they say, it’s better to err on the side of compassion.

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