Homeless Worldview Test

Seth Godin asks:

Is this:

  • someone in real need of help
  • someone you should give money to
  • someone who will take whatever money you give and go buy a substance that makes his problem worse
  • someone you should cross the street to avoid

Although Seth tries to help with a hint, “there is no right answer,” I have the nagging feeling there is. Maybe there’s more than one right answer, that all of these could be true.

This exact question has been bothering me for more than a week. On our drive home from Sacramento at the conclusion of spring break, my family stopped at my favorite rest stop, just north of Yreka. As we were leaving the stop, a man standing near the back of his parked pick-up held a cardboard sign asking for food, gas, or money. The tailgate was down and the camper shell door was up. A couple of kids were lying in sleeping bags in the back, their heads to the opening. A puppy sat attentively next to the man.

I pointed out the cute puppy to my family as I turned left onto the road that would take us to the northbound freeway onramp. In response, one of my daughters said we should stop and give our traveling food to the man. As I continued on, silently preparing a response explaining why we wouldn’t, she said, “You’re so mean!”

In the next few miles, I was unable to convince my kids that we shouldn’t help this family so we took the second exit, turned around, and headed back to the rest stop. We gave the man some apples, chips, raisin-oatmeal cookies, and a little cash. We turned around again and headed back toward home.

I’d like to say that I felt better helping this man, but I didn’t. I felt like a sucker. And I felt guilty for feeling like a sucker. The car was silent for miles. As I drove, I replayed all the arguments I’ve heard why we shouldn’t have given anything.

  • The man didn’t need money. He’s just lazy and he probably makes more money than I do at no cost other than his dignity.
  • The man would squander the money on drugs or alcohol and throw away the food.
  • I already support homeless people with my taxes.
  • I already support homeless people with my offerings at church, some of which go to our local community service programs and our church’s international relief organization
  • Organizations do a better job helping homeless people; if I want to help, I should donate to an organization.
  • I had other places to spend my money, such as on my family.

Weeks later, I still don’t have a good answer for my kids. Do you?

<< Next Post
Previous Post >>

6 responses to “Homeless Worldview Test”

  1. Robert Logan Avatar

    I don’t have the answer . . . but somebody else did – “. . when I was hungry, you fed me . . . .”

  2. Brent Logan Avatar

    You’re right, but let me ask you something. How many of us provide assistance directly to those who need it? I suspect it’s much less common than donating to an organization that does the distribution.

    It’s interesting, the Bible seems to teach individual assistance and corporate worship. Today’s culture gets it wrong on both counts, preferring corporate assistance and individual worship (It’s amazing how many negative comments I hear about “organized religion”).

  3. Anon Avatar

    The answer is this — CHAOS (i.e., the mathematical theory, from the ancient Greek for gas), which is the nature of the physical universe, and our emotional universe within. The details are infinite and beyond our limited human capacity to see and foresee.

    In answer to the initial question, choices b, c, and d all constitute “someone in real need of help,” at different levels. Why didn’t you feel good with your action? The real question is — at what level?

    Your listed arguments reflect a basic polarization between capitalism and socialism. Is there value to our society in insuring that all members live above a certain threshhold level; or, should unfortunate people simply lose in life and essentially be excluded from society as the “untouchable” class? Our society is changing its values. The holes in our social “safety net” continue growing and growing, and maybe one day you will fall through. If your taxes helped that man, then why was he not already helped?

    A common argument in maintaining our Constitutional rights, particularly the 4th amendment (one of your favorites?), is that we pay a price to retain our freedom. Similarly with socialistic efforts, to uplift the unfortunate members of our society, we must accept that some will receive benefits who will abuse the gift and not improve. As citizens, we are less and less concerned about protecting our rights, and we elect representatives who enact laws that diminish them. The Patriot Act and its closed courts are a rapid slide down the slippery slope, away from the hard won freedoms established by the authors of the Constitution.

    Ultimately your’s is a question of conditional love, or unconditional love for humankind. Do you love your children only when they behave according to your particularly unique definition of “good.” So too, when we give with unconditional love, then what the receiver does with the gift is irrelevant.

    Embrace the chaos of the universe. The man in the truck may be overcoming insurmountable odds, to love and care for his children as best he can — instead of just dumping them into the foster care system and depriving them of real family love for the rest of their life. Conversely, he may have been a hippie drug addict, who is dragging his kids through their own living hell. What was your priority in the moment — concern over your money, or getting to know a little about the man so you could determine what expression of love and generosity was appropriate? This reflects the trend in our social values, away from love of our community and towards isolation from community which requires no love or giving at all.

    You did not give to the man, as much a you gave to your children (at least the second time around). You continued teaching them to respect their intuitive feelings and have compassion and unconditional love for others. So, what really is your inner conflict? Did that reinforcement of values for your children cost too much money?

    What if there were 50 homeless people at the rest stop? What could you have shown your children in that situation? Some appropriate help could have been connecting them with resources (such as the ones to which you already contribute), because they need more than you can afford to give without impairing your survival. At some point, it is inappropriate for your family to significantly suffer at a survival level, for the benefit of a relatively small number of others (tax theory, social security insurance). Then the gift is not money but knowledge… “teach a man how to fish….”

    When a tourist in a third world country, I saw poverty that is difficult for Americans to conceive. I found that this was an invaluable experience to be exposed in my youth. I learned that I alone cannot heal the world, and my purpose in that moment was as an observing tourist who contributes to the local economy.. trickle down theory. So I gave my business to local small entrapreneurs, rather than large corporate tour operators. Thus reinforcing that there are fish to be caught, when one makes the effort. As a mere tourist, I lacked the knowledge within their culture of where and how they could find assistance. So the only choice was to simply ignore the beggars.

  4. Brent Logan Avatar

    Chaos theory is an interesting analogy; even though a typical system is so complex that we can’t know or predict the motion of individual atoms, we do understand how inputs to the system affect it as a whole. Inflate a balloon a seal it. The gas laws predict the relationships between volume, pressure, temperature, number of atoms, etc. Are there similar knowable relationships between taxation, unemployment, homelessness, and government assistance? I suspect both the Democrats and the Republicans think they “know” but don’t agree what those laws are.

    Helping the poor does not need to be limited to either the capitalist “dog eat dog” worldview or the socialist “safety net” worldview. I believe one can prefer the limited government advantages of capitalism while also believing that helping the poor is a moral imperative. The question is whether the government is the appropriate body to enforce it. There are other social structures that might better provide assistance such as families, churches, and local community groups. When the government steps in and forces people to help, some people may feel less obligated to help on an individual basis. I know that was my reaction when faced with apparent need.

    You ask what my priority was, “concern over my money, or getting to know a little about the man…” Ouch! I was concerned about saving my precious time getting home. It’s now obvious that if I had taken a couple of minutes to talk to the man, I could have made an informed decision about helping him and probably felt better about it, too. I certainly would have been able to better answer my kids why I made the decision I did.

    I’m not sure I taught my kids much that day; I think the teaching went the other direction. My kids are already quite generous with both time and money. For example, my oldest daughter is planning on going on a mission trip this summer. I expect her to gain the same experience you did as a tourist in a third-world country with the added benefit of providing some substantial help in the process.

    My oldest daughter just walked through the kitchen for a late snack so I asked her if she’d read my blog recently. She said no and asked what I’ve been writing about. When I told her, she replied, “That was the neatest thing I’ve ever done.”

    What could I add to that?

  5. anon Avatar

    Regarding chaos theory. At some point we can only make the effort (strange attractor) without an expectation, or attachment, or foresight of the result (bifurcation point). After we perform the appropriate action for a given situation, then it is in the hands of the universe or God. Sometimes to discover what is appropriate, for the situation which the universe has placed before us, we must give our time.

    I agree with your second paragraph. Society at the extremes of socialism or capitalism doesn’t seem to work too well. Government is just one part of community. And, some people simply do not fit with the values of many groups. Once when I was on the brink of homelessness, a local church gave me $50 for a utility bill. But I was warned that I had exhausted my charity quota, and should never come back for more help — unless I chose to participate in the group and adopt their values.

    Positive emotional reinforcement is always a good example to show children, which seems to have been the net result of your decision to return and give to the man. If you never demonstrated that to your children, then one of them may not be going on a mission trip.

  6. Brent Logan Avatar

    Anon, now that’s class. I misinterpreted your point on chaos and you gently clarified it without even pointing out my mistake. Anon, you’re always welcome on my blog (regardless of which pseudonym you choose).

    Although your point contradicts mine (I implied we can know the results of our generosity, if only in the aggregate view), I suspect yours is closer to reality for where it matters—how I choose to behave in specific circumstances. More to think about…