A hugely pregnant begging lady and her small daughter approached me as I was leaving Nob Hill with a shopping cart full of food.
My inner witness watched in horror as I walked quickly by, giving her an unfriendly look. Her voice had a pathetic tone and a Middle Eastern accent as she pitched her story. I heard only bits, because that particular whiney voice was like a cat scratching on a blackboard to me. “Lost my job….pregnant…. little girl….hungry….no husband, etc.”
I could not get away fast enough. Not only was I feeling no compassion, I wanted to shout at her, “Stop whining! Get away from me! And stop using your little girl like that.”
Even though I was mortified by my own callousness, I was so triggered that I had to get away. It was only as I driving out of the parking lot with my husband that I was able to ask myself, What just happened there?
My behavior was particularly strange because years ago, I had established a “blanket beggar rule” for precisely these occasions. I had watched myself and others deciding how to respond to each request for money. I find that I am more comfortable than many people with poverty, having lived in third world countries for a good portion of my adult life. But still, middle class “fiscal responsibility” seemed to dictate an assessment of each case. Even though I knew nothing about these people or their circumstances, I felt obligated to make assumptions about their worthiness and give accordingly.
Is he really homeless? Everyone had heard the stories about beggars that were dropped off on the street corner in a Cadillac.
“I haven’t eaten for days. Please help.” Really? Why don’t you just go to one of the many soup kitchens in the area.
If beggars passed the initial hurdles and I decided that they were really poor, I then had to speculate on what they would do with the money. Would “my” money be spent on something unhealthy? It’s kinder not to enable alcoholics or drug addicts by giving them money. Possibly I should not help them for their own good.
Long story short, this process usually took so long that the opportunity to give had passed. I was alleviated of the possibility of making a mistake. No one likes to feel gullible or naïve. No one likes to be taken advantage of. Inaction assured that no one would make a fool out of me. I was too smart for that.
About 20 years ago, my spiritual teacher, Amma, raised my level of consciousness of my own mind’s games. She noted that many people excuse themselves from compassion by assuming that if a person is poor, it’s their karma, probably because of some past life infraction. She said, “Their karma is none of your business. If it’s their karma to be poor, it’s yours to help them.”
I decided to flip the process and give something to everyone. I freed myself of the need to wonder about things I would never know.
I did this by creating my own beggar rule: When anyone asks me for money, I make eye contact, I smile and give them at least one dollar. I could afford that and it would help them a little. At least they would know that someone cared about them. This rule worked well for me.
But I had refused to give even a measly dollar to this pregnant lady (who looked like she was due last week) and her tiny daughter, who had begun crying as I got into the car. What was wrong with me?
When I got home, I sat down to meditate and asked for some clarity. As a Hypnotherapist, I know that such a powerful emotional reaction had to come from somewhere. I took a few deep breaths, closed my eyes, and asked to know the source. Almost immediately a scene from the past came to me.
It was 1971 or 72 and I was in Morocco for the first time. I loved the place – the sun, the mint tea, the bazaar, the hash… But every time I left my cheap hotel room, hoards of small children and women with babies would appear from nowhere to follow me, begging in a chorus of singsong, whiney voices. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but if I looked at them, they made their message clear, pointing at their mouths or stomachs, with exaggerated pathetic expressions on their faces. If I stopped or hesitated at all, hundreds of small grimy hands would reach out and pull on my clothing, my purse, or even my body. I hated it.
Even though some part of me was aware that these people were poor in a way I couldn’t even comprehend, it did not feel safe to indulge in compassion. I knew that if I gave even one of them a coin, I would be engulfed and never get away. Whenever I had to go out, I would steel myself and try to act like they were mosquitoes. But there was no escape from the whiney voices and pawing hands. They were trying to make me feel guilty but they were just making me mad. I wanted to scream, “Stop it! Get away from me! There’s too many of you and you’re too poor. Even if I gave you all my money, it wouldn’t change anything and then I’d be broke, too. I can’t help you.”
Sitting in front of my altar, with Amma’s forgiving eyes looking down on me, I realized that what I really wanted to say to those children was, “Stop shoving your poverty in my face. I can’t change your life and you’re ruining my time here.”
Wow! How embarrassing. How selfish. And how like the people I have been judging a lot lately.
The U.S. has aired its dirty laundry in front of the world for years, arguing incessantly about whether or not rich people should chip in to help with our deficit. (A janitor or a worker at MacDonald’s doesn’t get to debate whether or not to chip in and pay taxes.) As our resources have been squandered in egotistical or profitable wars, politicians have increasingly decided that poor people will be fine without a safety net.
I have watched incredulously as serious politicians have argued that people don’t need subsidized health care because in the “good old days,” people could give their doctors a chicken in payment for a visit. I have watched people with no understanding of nutrition, obesity, or the junk food industry, decide that poor people can’t be hungry because they’re fat. I have watched poor schools turned into war zones, as money was diverted from our education system. I have watched as that diverted money has been funneled into a new corporate prison system to make sure that the hungry and uneducated products of those bad schools don’t try to get their needs met at our expense. They have judged the poor and justified writing them off. Early programming, selective statistics, and subconscious fears have led to the conclusions:
- If we feed them, they’ll always be asking for more.
- Charity will destroy their self esteem and work ethic.
- There’s too many of them. We can’t afford to take care of them.
- There’s no use in helping them. Look at all they’ve gotten and they’re still poor. (The equivalent of “It’s their karma to be poor.”)
- They’re trying to make us feel guilty, but instead they’re making us mad.
Again I am reminded how much I resemble the people I judge. Perhaps I could find some compassion for those who want to punish the poor, because they ruin our good times by reminding us of their existence.
In Morocco, I had found my own solution by asking my friend, Mehdi, a native of Marrakesh, “What I can I do to get these beggars to stop following me around? I’ve been here a month. I haven’t given a single person a coin, because I was warned not to. Don’t they ever give up?”
Mehdi laughed and said, “That’s because you don’t have your own personal beggars. You’re fair game.”
“Personal beggars? Where does one acquire personal beggars?” There were stalls selling almost everything imaginable in the medina, so anything was possible.
Mehdi laughed again and explained, “Charity is a most important part of Islam, and every family is directed to give what they can to the poor. They can’t take care of everyone, so they may choose a specific family or person and a certain bond is formed. Both the givers and the recipients accept their roles as Allah’s will and everyone is quite comfortable. Others know that you have made your commitment and respect that.”
“You mean like a monogamous begging relationship?” I asked, trying to absorb the concept. “No one expects you to cheat on your beggar?” Could this work for me? I was wondering.
More chuckling. Sometimes I felt that Mehdi found me a little too amusing. “Not monogamous. A person is expected to take on as many beggars as he or his family can afford, much as Muslim men were once allowed to take as many wives as they could afford. Now we are limited to four,” he added, almost wistfully.
So I set my intention to find a personal beggar and it wasn’t that hard. Every day I ate breakfast and lunch in the same places. Travelling in Africa, I determined that once I found a place that fit my budget and didn’t make me sick, it was good to stick with it. Each morning I went to a little stand on the edge of the medina, the ancient maze of market stalls, not far from my room. I would eat one hard-boiled egg and a glass of goat yogurt – total bill, about 20 cents. The next morning, I noticed a diminutive old lady watching me eat. I had seen her before, but now I took a new interest. Through hand signals I invited her to join me, and she accepted. The man in the stall gave her a glass of yogurt (she declined the egg) and I gave him another 10 cents. We ate in silence, she nodded her head to me, and we went our separate ways. That went well, I thought. I wish I could talk to her and invite her to be my personal beggar.
A few hours later, I dropped by the street vendor where I usually ate lunch. He had a small grill on the edge of a dusty road and he sold sandwiches made with the organs of some animal(s). As a vegetarian for decades now, this makes me a little sick to recall. The proprietor would pull some non-descript entrails from a pail on the ground, throw them on the grill, and slather them with some sauce. On the other side of the grill, he had a giant cloth bag of amazingly fresh Moroccan bread. When the entrails were cooked “just right,” he would cut a small round loaf in half and fill it with meat. As a poor hippie traveler, I was not such a fussy eater and I probably had a protein deficiency, as well. It always tasted like one of the best things I had ever eaten.
That day, as I ordered my sandwich, I looked around for someone who was not part of the small entourage that had followed me there. As my gaze passed over the group, it triggered a new round of clamoring. Now I wondered if they were actually auditioning to be my beggar. But I was still a little irritated with them and it seemed unlikely that I could choose one and expect the others to leave.
I spotted a small, skinny boy, about 10 years old, standing alone and watching me. I motioned to him, asking if he wanted a sandwich. He nodded and I ordered another round of entrails to be thrown on the grill. I looked around and saw that as soon as I had done that, my entourage had dissipated into the crowd. Hot damn! I thought. This works.
The next day as I approached the goat yogurt stand, I looked hopefully around for the old lady. I didn’t see her and I thought, Darn. Now I have to start over. But just as I was ordering, I noticed her casually walking by, offering me an opportunity to invite her again. I motioned to her and she immediately came and over. The stall owner wordlessly handed her a glass of yogurt and I wordlessly handed him another ten cents. From that time on, I just gave him 30 cents, and at some point while I was eating, she would show up and claim her yogurt. After breakfast I was free to go about my business. At lunch time, the 10 year old boy just happened to be around each day and I automatically paid for 2 sandwiches. Never again was I followed by beggars in Marrakech.
I loved this method of addressing poverty. I was allowed to decide how much I wanted to do, and that was accepted without question. I could imagine that my tiny daily contributions to the diets of the boy and the old lady were keeping them from hunger. I was allowed to presume that all the other poor people were having their needs met by other people around the city, through wordless agreements just like mine. I was left to enjoy my relative riches, guilt free. I wondered why we didn’t have such a simple and practical philosophy in the US.
Now I can recognize that this is the type of safety net that conservative politicians have been presenting for years, and many people seem to recognize its appeal. Everyone would be free to offer charity to whomever they felt was deserving – as many people as they felt they could afford. They could give money or a hot meal, or maybe a chicken. These people might have other needs, such as shelter, health care, education, transportation or employment – the things that might pull them out of the pit of poverty. But no one would have to hear about it because under the terms of the wordless agreements, the givers get to decide what to give. They don’t want to know about the rest. It would probably be more than they feel they could afford and then they would have to feel guilty.
Sitting in front of my little altar, Amma had taken me back in time to remind me that I am not so different from the people I have labeled as heartless. I like to be comfortable. I like to feel generous, but I don’t want to give so much that it hurts. I like feel that whatever I have done is enough and I don’t want to know that it never will be. I am human.
Thank you Amma for showing me my self-righteous shadow. Thank you whiney lady, for being my teacher. I now saw her differently – standing outside the store on a hot summer day, her feet and stomach swollen, and her unhappy two year old crying. She was just trying to get enough cash to hold her life together a little longer. My heart broke open for her. No one should have to do that to survive. And no one who has so many things to deal with should have to worry about making me uncomfortable.
The next day, my husband stuck his head into my office and said, “I’m going out. Do you need anything?”
“Yes! I need you to go to Nob Hill, find that pregnant lady and give her some money. And thank her for me.” I was half joking. I knew I owed her a lot more than a dollar for that lesson.
He was chuckling as he left, and it reminded me of Mehdi. It’s good to know that after all these years, I’m still making people laugh.