The People We Walk Past

I live in California.  Sometimes I drive down to the beautiful tourist town that gives this part of the Central Coast its name, and I walk through the downtown, look into shop windows, perhaps grab a cup of coffee at a café or stop in to a movie theater to catch an evening showing.  I enjoy my solitary outings, but because I usually do not carry much beyond car keys, license, and debit card, I’m faced with the fact that I will have to walk past numerous beggars and street people who will ask me for spare cash which I do not have, and really could not spare even if I did carry money on me.

I always feel guilty when I have to tell a person down on their luck that I cannot give them anything, and then go on to treat myself to coffee, a meal, or a movie.  Sometimes, when I do have money, I will give it to a beggar; sometimes I will buy a person a meal if the night is cold or I am lonely enough (I am often lonely).  I try to acknowledge every person I walk past, at least enough to say “Sorry, not today,” if someone approaches me.  I try not to avoid the gaze of those who stare up at me from door wells or benches.  But it is hard: it is hard to be faced, day after day, with my own impotence and my own unwillingness to give.

In particular, I am troubled because there is often no good reason for me to give money to one beggar but not another: I might like the look of one person, or not another, and that is enough to trigger generosity toward one human being and indifference toward another.  I have little enough to give that I must choose, but I have no rational basis upon which to make a rational choice, so I choose impulsively, emotionally, and often almost at random.

I see other people faced with this problem also; in this small town with a large population of underserved homeless people, there are a lot of buskers, perpetual travelers, beggars, and other street people, and thus anyone local will face a gauntlet of need every time they walk down the street.  Some respond by doling out aid in a miserly but deliberate fashion, hoping to be able to give a dime to every person they pass.  Some simply ignore all the needy people around, avoiding eye contact and even vocal calls for help.  Some decide that all beggars must deserve their poverty, and that any money given will necessarily go toward the evils of drugs and booze.  Some develop a “system” of neediness – the Vietnam Vet gets a little change, but not the young man; the woman in a wheelchair gets a dollar, but not the dirty girl playing the guitar; the man with the dog gets some change (because everyone loves dogs!) but not the woman missing her two front teeth.

This dilemma – the dilemma of whom to walk past and whom to help – is a fundamental dilemma in all areas of charity and social justice work.  All over the world, countless people cry out for help and are not helped; a small number of people work tirelessly to help as many as they can, and a larger number give aid or money occasionally.  Why do we choose to support some people or causes, and not others?  And how ought we behave toward those whom we choose not to help, toward those causes which we cannot support, because of our own finite resources?

Probably the most crucial finite resource for the activist is time.  Because our time is limited, so too is our attention; our empathy is limited because our attention is limited.  The most powerful activism tends to be narrow in focus, but narrowly focused activism is limited in scope and thus leaves behind many people.  Money, too, is limited; when limited funds are dispersed too widely, the effects may be indistinguishable; concentrating aid among a few, however, seems unjust: why should some people receive help, but not others?  How on earth can you choose?

This dilemma is agonizing.  The personality type attracted to social justice or aid work shrinks from unfairness and cruelty, particularly the feeling that one is committing or perpetuating unfairness and cruelty.  So we develop the same emotional ticks as those who must walk past beggars every day: we learn to ignore those whom we have decided we cannot help, or else we decide that some people simply do not deserve help because they will waste aid given to them or because they are unpleasant people.  These little rationalizations and lies help us feel better about ourselves, but are not useful.  In fact, they can often be so pernicious they outweigh the good we might do in our regular work.

Yet what other response to infinite need can there be?  I propose honesty: we must be honest with ourselves about our own motives in giving aid (are we falling into the altruism trap, in which we expect gratitude as payment?) and about our motives for with-holding aid.  We also must be honest to the people whose needs we are not meeting about why we cannot meet their needs.  If we see a beggar on the street and cannot spare a dime, we ought to meet their eyes and say, “I’m sorry.  I don’t have the money today.”  We need to stop walking past people as if they were invisible, and we need to stop ignoring causes and people in our activist work which are inconvenient, for instance anti-sex trafficking feminists who support legislation criminalizing all prostitution ought to be honest about the harm they will do to women voluntarily doing sex work, and marriage equality activists who want inconveniently off-message trans and undocumented activists to disappear ought to question their motives for doing activist work in the first place.

Honesty does not require that one devote all of one’s energy to all causes; this remains impossible.  But it does constrain us in two ways.  First, it requires that we spend at least some of our time and energy paying attention to people and causes which may be unfamiliar and which may intersect with our own core mission in inconvenient ways.  Second, it requires that we either modify our own work in response to criticism, or state why we cannot.  It is not enough to pretend that voluntary sex work does not exist, or tell trans activists “Some other time.”  It is certainly not right to slander those people whose very existence makes our own work more difficult.  If we can only do our own activist work on the backs of other people, we should stop working!

But honesty is painful: at least as painful as meeting the eyes of every beggar we see on the street, and saying: “Sorry.  Not today.  Be well, and better luck next time.”  Honesty is a radical form of kindness; only through honesty can we recognize the true humanity of those we cannot help.

At the same time, we ought not err in the opposite direction: the activist who worries too much about perfectly acknowledging the needs of all comers will never do anything at all.  Paralysis is not useful.  Once again, avoid the altruism trap: if you want to work so you can feel good about yourself, stop!  You are toxic – you will hurt people – if all you care about is your own emotional payoff.  Usually, the best work in any cause is done by people who are not working for altruistic reasons, but who are working to help themselves or their loved ones.  Because the cause is personal, it is the end result, and not the process, that is the payoff; the opinions of others are secondary to getting the work done.  People who are working for a cause because they need the cause to succeed in order to live do not care about their image in the community nearly as much as the altruistic allies.

None of us are ever going to be morally pure.  Just as we cannot help everyone all the time, we cannot avoid doing the wrong thing all the time, either.  We must develop some resilience in order to work, and we ought not choose to devote our energy to work where we are constantly wrong-footed and worried about how we will be received.  Work as best you can for a cause close to your own heart, and stop waiting for gratitude as your own reward: find your reward in the success or failure of the cause.

And next time you see a beggar on the street – don’t ignore him.  If you don’t have money or don’t want to give your money away, meet that person’s eyes and say, “Sorry.  Not today.  Be well, and better luck next time.”

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