Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Giving Alms

First, I would like to talk about the beggar or the stranger himself.

A normal person will be very embarrassed to ask for money from a stranger, except in dire circumstances.

Exceptions that come to mind are: Addicts, swindlers, people who have lost their money or their possessions or a railway ticket etc. due to some accident/crime, the handicapped, the old or destitute, those in ill-health and not having anyone to care for them, spiritual monks, donation seekers for social and religious causes, and beggars.

Since I do usually have some money with me, part of which I can part with without any hardship to myself, my way of dealing with them is as follows (these are actual descriptions of how I act, not prescriptions about my behavior nor any set of rules that I want others to follow):

Addicts: If perceived as an addict, which is usually possible, straightway rejection of any help. I have in the past given money to addicts due to compassion and regretted it when I saw them rolling on the street a few hours later, drunk or intoxicated with drugs. Once I gave $20 to a street drug-addict in san francisco because she was so miserable and I didn't realize she was a druggie. I regretted it later, both because I realized I had been manipulated into giving, and that the "help" was useful only for getting the next fix for her.

Swindlers: I usually persist and ask questions if someone claims to need money for something personal. If the need is found to be genuine, I usually try to buy the needful (buy them a ticket, give money to the phone booth owner) instead of giving them money directly (though that is not out of the question).

People in an exigency who need money: I try to discern if someone is in real need of help, and if in my perception their need is genuine, I help them even with the direct help of money. For strangers, I would guess my help threshold would be around 200 rupees. An example is when I found someone traveling in the general compartment of a train with his wife and kids and had no money to buy any food for them for the 36-hour journey (I had to get off at the next station), because they had been not paid by their employer for the last 3 months, and the children were crying with hunger.

Handicapped: I help them sometimes (based on if I have loose change or if I perceive them to be ill-fed etc.), but I get put off by manipulative ones who try to show off their handicap in an exaggerated way.

The old and the destitute: I almost always help them with a few rupees if I have loose change. I think the lack of a secular social safety net in India is unfortunate, and out of regard for those old people who either have no progeny or who have been abandoned, I like to help them.

Those in ill-health and without any care-giver: I try to arrange medical care for them. I do not try to help them monetarily but try to find out if they can be moved to a facility. There are exceptions. If I do not have the time (e.g. I am boarding a train and someone comes to me with an old festering wound, or if I perceive that I might not be of much help even if I try). Once, about 10 years back, I encountered a very old lady full of warts, close to death, on the banks of Ganges in Benares (presumably she had been left there to die by her relatives) and I did not do anything because I thought she was close to death and there were many like her scattered throughout Benares. If given another chance, I will probably call an NGO/hospital for her.

Spiritual monks: I do not monetarily help monks and shani-devs (weekly cruisers). I haven't ever met a monk who was not in extremely good health. I sometimes give them a little bit of food/fruit. Usually this class is most explicit in demanding a certain kind of help (at least 10 rupees, some fruit, some shawl) and many-a-time they have become resentful when I did not help them according to their expectations and they started mumbling curses etc.

Donation seekers for social causes: Usually rejected except where I agree on the sensibility of what they are doing. E.g. I have donated to NBA, wikipedia, and so on.

Donation seekers who are living alternate lifestyles (e.g. social activists) and who do not have money to support themselves: I have met many such people and I did give them money. I now am not very generous to these people, as they either need to work for themselves or find support from the group they are purportedly helping.

Donation seekers for religious causes (e.g. Jagrata, langar, etc.): Rejected without exception as I do not participate in such activities.

Beggars: Habitual beggars, who do not fall in any of the above categories, are usually begging as a lifestyle option. Mostly migrants from the poorer regions of India, they take to this activity because it is easy money. As such, I do not encourage them by giving money. I do pay a rupee or two to those beggars who try to "earn" their begging by cleaning the car windshield, or wiping the train compartment (if indeed the windshield or the train floor was in dire need of cleaning), as a gesture of my appreciation. Sometimes, I buy food for shoe-polishing boys, who seem to be hungry or having a hard time, without making them polish my shoes, since they are at least trying to contribute something back to society.


Now the next issue is my own psychological reaction when:
a) help is being expected by a stranger/beggar
b) I have helped
c) I have not helped

(a) I have seen that most people avoid the gaze/face of a beggar when they do not have an intention to give anything. I think it is because they do not want to escalate the conflict between their unconscious altruism and their conscious selfishness. If they do look into his eyes, they might be unable to withhold help because they will then recognize the humanity of the beggar. So people avert their gaze, form a wooden expression, and feel uncomfortable till the beggar leaves the window.

A person who feels uncomfortable and avoids the eyes of the beggar /has/ some compassion in his heart, but is unwilling to act upon it. This conflict between the heart and the mind makes the person uncomfortable, because he is rejecting, as it were, his inner voice. Looking into the beggar's eyes will accentuate the compassion, and to avoid that situation (where one's conscious desire might get overruled in favor of the deeper desire to help), one avoids looking. This suppression of one's feelings is also illustrated by the wooden expression that people have when a beggar is knocking for help.

A psychopath (one who is cold, callous, without compassion) will have no trouble looking into the eyes of a beggar, and maybe even abuse him, kick him away or slap him for bothering him.

So, one way is compassion. One may or may not act upon it, but one feels an urge to help due to some kind of oneness/empathy.

The second is callousness. One may or may not physically abuse, but one feels bothered and malicious.

However, a third way, the one that I follow, is the common-sense response to the situation: Ascertaining if one is in a position (monetarily, having enough time) to help, and whether the stranger is in actual need of help and whether the help is likely to be effective.

(b) and (c)
These days, I feel neither a revulsion nor a compassion towards a beggar (each of which has happened in the past). I am able to look into his eyes (even that of a child beggar) as a fellow human being and ascertain the situation. If I ascertain that I will not help, and the beggar persists, I will shoo him away politely.

Now what happens after the paths (the beggar and me) diverge again?

If I do not help, there is no regret or ache (there used to be). If I do help, there is no self-praising gratification, no sense of having done a good deed and no bitter-sweet feeling of a shared pathos (there used to be). There is only the memory of an incident in which I had a certain non-emotional response.

If the act happens due to an emotional reaction, an emotional reaction inevitably also follows the act.

If the act was an act of compassion, there is some good feeling (i am a good person, i have risen in dharma, i am not selfish, i am better than others, god bless him for giving me an opportunity for help, etc.) at the end of it.

If the act was an act of ruthlessness of callousness, there is usually regret or some form of self-justification (I can't help all the buggers, why doesn't police do something, you can't manipulate me into parting with my money, etc.) at the end of it.


Prashanth Ellina said...

Well written. I usually get into a dilemma when a beggar asks for alms. If I give money, I am concerned whether I'm being duped and the money goes to a syndicate who make these poor people beg on the roads. If I don't give them money, my conscience keeps accusing me of not being compassionate.

Ravi S Ghosh said...

Amazing explanation of the donor psyche. Wrote something about begging but with a different point of view, you might like it: