Think of the starving Biafrans

In the early weeks while convalescing after my broken leg, a friend, Maria Tumarkin emailed a series of questions as part of her research into the nature of guilt and giving, topics dear to my heart.

When it comes to giving, I am a mass of contradictions. I come from a family of nine children and therefore the notion of give and take is central in my mind, especially the notion of sharing. But I can feel overwhelmed by the neediness of others.

My husband calls people who ask for money, ‘beggars’. He has a difficulty with them. Perhaps a consequence of his deprived childhood and the fantasy that those who beg are not trying to work as they might.

It is their ostensible lack of dignity that gets to me. To beg is to demean yourself, though many of these people are drug addicted or drunk. They have fallen low. My heart bleeds for me them, even as I avoid eye contact.

The local people who ask for money on the streets trouble me. Though when I traveled through Europe, the beggars there troubled me even more. I had the impulse to help them, though again I resisted it.

They are like a bottomless pit, and I fear I would fall to the bottom of that pit were I to start trying.

I met a woman in Paris outside the Louvre. She dressed innocuously in a floral skirt and blouse. In retrospect I think she may have been a gypsy. She thrust a gold ring at me and told me to keep it, that it must be mine she said, only a woman like you could own such a ring.

My husband tried to drag me away. Give it back to her, he said. The woman insisted she had no use for such things. I should keep it. Before I had the chance to give it back the woman was asking me for money for a coke.

I was generous to you, now it’s your turn, she seemed to say. The ring of course was not gold. I could tell simply by its weight in my hand. Even if it were, I felt tricked. I threw the ring back and fled.

Such begging disturbs me more than a direct request for money because it is a trick and I do not like to feel tricked into giving. I want it to be voluntary, to come out of my desire, not to have it squeezed out of me.

I have a particular concern for asylum seekers. If I had more time I would volunteer to work with this group. I identify with this group more strongly than with any other disadvantaged group, maybe even more so than the poor souls in Pakistan caught in the floods.

When I was little there was a metal statue on the teacher’s desk in the shape of a black man’s head and shoulders. He wore a straw hat and had a large open red painted mouth. There was a lever at the back of the collection box into which we kids were encouraged to put any spare pennies.

The fun of inserting the money was reward enough for giving the money up. I never had any spare pennies. If I did I would have used them on myself or my siblings. I felt too starved then to be generous to strangers.

Even so, these poor people on the other side of the world who did not have enough to eat troubled me. My relationship to them had been tarnished by my mother’s constant admonitions when we were children to ‘think of the starving Biafrans’. Think of them and do not complain about your own lot, was her message.

So my tendency has been to avoid thinking of these others, as if were I to think about them, I would cease to exist.

I also have a clear memory of a time when I was a child when things had gone badly in my family and my mother needed to ask the priest for financial assistance. He gave it in the form of a food hamper.

I hated the fact of that hamper more than I can say. I hate to be a charity case. It would have been better, had the priest involved himself more and given a different sort of help, one that offered more dignity to my family.

I consider that I am inconsistent in my response to those who are more needy than me. I am ashamed to say that I am not more generous to those beyond my ken.

On the other hand, I rationalise that were I to give all the time I would have nothing left for those who rely on me, my family, those with whom I work. I could all too easily become one who gets such a thrill out of giving that she gives it all away.

I work hard on curbing my tendencies to give. I know that giving to others can be built around ulterior motives. I distrust the Mother Teresa’s of this world. She took prostitutes off the streets and turned them into servants. Both to me are forms of subjugation, though one might look better than the other. Were these women given a real choice, they might not leave Mother Teresa so sanctified.

There is also the mistaken belief that giving is the only way to receive. If I look after you, you will look after me.

There may be something in this notion but taken to its extreme it is a dubious basis on which to give.

I trust giving that involves something on both sides, that of the giver and that of the receiver. Only then to me does it feel valid, though that said, I again wonder about circumstances where someone might give and another receive, and they neither know it, as with anonymous donors.

And what about the notion of corporate philanthropy as Maria Tumarkin mentions in her essay?