To Give or Not to Give, Revisited

Posted on January 2, 2012

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I want to share a story from my most recent trip to Europe that relates to this article we published on street beggars.

By Eileen Rush

I was walking down a street near the Duomo in Florence, Italy, with two friends. Both are backpackers, and close to my age. One needed to go inside of a store and buy a new memory card for her camera. We’d spent the afternoon exploring beautiful Fiesole, walking through its winding streets and marveling at the gorgeous views of Tuscany’s rolling hills.

It was growing dark. My friend and I waited outside of the store, watching crowds of people trickle by. Everyone was in a hurry, on their way home to dinner, coats pulled tight against the October evening chill.

Directly across the street, sitting cross-legged on the ground, was a familiar sight in Florence: a man begging on the street. He held a cardboard sign. It was in Italian, a phrase I couldn’t read. My friend told me it said, “I’m hungry.”

I think she’ll forgive me for paraphrasing some of what she said. It was something along the lines of, “I always feel so bad when I see that. I never know what to do.”

Stubbornly, I made a case against giving. I used arguments that I’d heard before, and told her something along the lines of, “Well, he probably made a lot of poor choices that got him there.”

Looking back, I’m kind of shocked at the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve volunteered in one of East Africa’s poorest communities. I’ve been all over the world, and seen devastating poverty. Yet, here I was, being the devil’s advocate and stubbornly arguing against helping someone in need.

My friend gave me a great reminder.

“It doesn’t matter what choices he’s made,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where he comes from, what he’s done, or what circumstances got him there. He’s still there.”

She was right.

I remembered an apple I had in my bag, leftover from our trip to Fiesole. I didn’t need it, or the few Euro that were scattered in my purse. I fished them out, crossed the street, and walked up to the man.

He was cross-legged, looking at the cobblestones, holding his sign. I dropped the few Euro into the plastic cup he held before him. He looked young, close to my age maybe. Then, I held the apple out to him.

He finally looked up. Our eyes met, and wordlessly he accepted the apple.

Rather than feeling like some sort of saint, all I felt was shame: shame that I’d judged him, before I ever gave.

The truth is, the way you interact with people is never black and white. When you travel, you’re often faced with difficult choices. We can’t say “Never give” or “always give.” Judge each situation for yourself, and go with what you feel in your gut. Listen to your friends.

And, when in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

What do you think? Do you have a similar story? Are you just as conflicted about dealing with people who “beg” on the street? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Posted in: LIFE ABROAD