Charity with Dignity

Paul McCartney and John Lennon said it best – “I get by with a little help from my friends”. Every now and then, we all need help and at these times we turn to our families, friends, the government and banks. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t.

When all else fails we turn to strangers for help, but it is not a natural state to be in. After all humans are social beings, born and raised in families and communities. It does not matter if the tie to your community is close or distant, strong or weak, intense or reserved. In all cases, your community is there, to call on in times of need. What happens when the bond to your community breaks? What happens when you are forced to turn to complete strangers for help. This is not a situation anyone wants to be in. It is embarrassing and is beset with stigma, social stereotyping, and condescension. People in this situation start to lose their dignity and their “humanness” somehow gets reclassified. Society starts to walk past them, without acknowledgement, without eye contact. We don’t want to see them, and these people fade into the background.

All societies have the full spectrum of participants. There are those that are “wealthier” than us, be it financially, intellectually, hygienically, healthily, physically, or by social fame and there are those whose wealth is comparatively meagre, and they are forced to rely on others for assistance.

As individuals we turn to the wealthy for inspiration, motivation, and actualisation. We only go to restaurants that meet our social status, we avoid the poor part of town, and we walk past beggars without eye contact. Even when we drop a few a few coins in their cup, we still try not to see them.

When the wealth gap is small, we help each other willingly. We do not see it as charity. It is just a friend or person that needs helps. We give our support gladly, and easily afford the person dignity and tell them how pleased we are that they turned to us for help. The transaction also frequently implies an unspoken contract. I will help you, and one day you will help me. Many friendships have been irreparably broken when the implied contract is not later honoured.

We use our perception of our wealth as a cocoon to cushion us from the realities of life, and we protect and nurture our cocoon as best we can. Invariably we knowingly or unknowingly, allow our cacoon to make us selective as to who we engage with. Consequently, we muffle our humanity.

As the perceived wealth gap between ourselves and another person increases, so does our level of discomfort. When the discomfort hits a threshold, we stop “seeing” the other person. We allow our eyes to pass right over them. For some, this level of discomfort can be realised by seeing someone in a wheelchair, or a person with a struggling with a syndrome. For others, it can be seeing people who are severely ill, or people that we consider to be “Terribly unglamorous”. Frequently the discomfort is highest when the hygiene and financial gap are large, and unfortunately these two statuses often go together.

However, when it comes to humanity, no one is wealthier than anyone else, and everyone is uniquely and equally positioned to connect with the humanity of another. For the folks who are forced to rely on the goodwill of strangers to survive, they have no cocoon and their only wealth is their humanity, and if you allow them, they will give it generously. The only contract they require is that their humanity is recognised at the time at the time giving, that you look into their eyes, and acknowledge them. In doing so, in that briefest of moment, you recognise their humanity and return them from the shadows. You give them a dignity equal to yours, and for that brief moment your cocoon is suspended and both lives are enriched.

Her hand is out stretched
Her voice says, money please
Her face is dirty, this is not the life she chose for herself
She is asking for charity
But her gift is immense
She offers me the chance to be the person I would rather be
To have the life I would have chosen for myself
To look into the eyes, to see the person behind
To give charity with dignity

We all want to be better people, to be wealthy in spirit. Giving as one person to another, as equals, perhaps with a kind word such as “wishing you well” gives the recipient dignity; charity with dignity.

You cannot give if you cannot see
The person standing in front of you
You cannot offer a kind word
If your eyes have no depth
Give dignity, offer money
Request no contract, except to say
I see you.

Many people justify not interacting with people down on their luck as they feel that the person has made the choices that led them to be where they now are. It’s easy to say “That would never happen to me…” This essay does not suggest that you need to make friends with those people who receive your charity. It’s unlikely they want to be friends with you. All that is required is that you let them know that you see them, that you recognise their humanity, and that you are helping them without judgement.

He looks up from the street
Hunched next to his cardboard
He does not want pity
All he asks is recognition of the life he lives
For you to acknowledge your humanity
His humanity, a shared bond
And the price of your next treat.

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