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?

41 thoughts on “Think of the starving Biafrans”

  1. I think you should give when you feel compelled, whether that comes when you pass someone on the street or read about a national tragedy.
    And when you give- it doesn't matter, really, what happens after the gift has been received. If someone worries overly much about that, then the gift is essentially meaningless.
    We give- we have done our part.
    What happens after that is not really our business. That's what I think.
    But it must come from a feeling of "this is what I should do", not guilt or any of that shit.

  2. Your post reads almost like a window into my thoughts.

    Which is why I prefer taxes and a social safety net to private charity. I would rather everybody ceded back to the greater society a small amount of their wealth in order to keep society relatively healthy, unhateful, and with no one doomed by poverty. It's cheaper and safer for all of us to spend on education, health, and an uncorrupted justice system, than on bullets, bombs, and generals.

  3. Lovely thought-provoking post as always dear Elisabeth. Both the action of giving and receiving brings pleasure. Obviously we can not save all the beggars and the needy of this world. To just give once is better than not at all.
    My former boyfriend always gave money to street performers, never to beggars. No matter how poorly they performed. His philosophy was than anyone who at least tried should be rewarded.;)
    Have a lovely day,

  4. My mother played the Biafran card when it came to food. If we left anything on our plates we were told to think of the starving Biafrans, the same starving Biafrans that were the butt of some seriously questionably jokes in the schoolyard at the time. I feel more guilty about the jokes that not eating my Brussels sprouts. As a child we didn’t see any beggars. Not a one. There were the tinkers as my mum called them, the Gypsies that used to set up camp just down the road from us. They’d knock on our back door a couple of times every year selling clothes pegs or other such stuff. My mum always indulged them until one day a young girl called and gave her spiel using exactly the same lingo as the old women used to use. I think she called my mum ‘dearie’, something like that, but she shooed her away and Mum never had anything to do with them after that. It was the girl’s disingenuousness that got to her. She realised that what she was listening to was nothing more than a sales pitch.

    The first down-and-out I ever saw was on 18th June 1976 in Glasgow, in a side street near Central Station. I’m not sure why I was in Glasgow that early – probably going to college – but I took the opportunity to explore and discovered this guy asleep (dead perhaps) in a doorway. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Now it’s routine. I can give you the exact date because I wrote a poem, ‘Street Games’ right after. The final stanza is “Shadows of men / playing a game called reality.” I showed it to my dad whose only response was that life was not a game.

    Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time passing through Glasgow’s Central Station especially in the seventies. I got quite used to the various tramps that hung about there but there was one in particular that always made me shudder because he looked like an older and considerably more ragged and dishevelled version of me – “There but for the grace of God” and all that. I never gave him money – he never asked me for any – but a couple of time I caught his eye and were they sad eyes or what?

    I was not brought up to give, not financially anyway. My parents both grew up in poverty and my dad was more canny than any Scot when it came to money. He didn’t buy cheap – he bought stuff that would last and made sure it did. If people came to the door looking for charitable donations he’d put his hand in his pocket unless he objected to their cause; if that was the case all he gave them for nothing was his thoughts on the subject. There were no beggars on the streets when I was young and so I have no idea if Dad would have dropped a couple of bob in their hats but I somehow doubt it. When I told him about the man in the side street his heart didn’t exactly go out to him.

    Now I’m older and more experienced I can see that it’s easy to be taken in. I was asked for money once when I was a kid. A man said, “Hey, Jimmy, can you lend me sixpence,” or something like that. Because he used my name I gave him what he asked for assuming he worked in my dad’s mill and knew me from there not realising that he was just using ‘Jimmy’ as a salutation – as Billy Connolly puts it, “In Glasgow everyone’s called ‘Jimmy’ … even the women.” Needless to say he didn’t know me and I felt a right fool being taken in like that.

    I have given money to beggars in the street. It’s rare though and not something I do on a regular basis. I want to believe their tales of woe but all the trust has been pretty much sucked out of me. And that’s a sad inditement of the society we now live in.

  5. I like to help genuine people who cross my path. Not just a fleeting moment in the path, but those who are actually placed in my life for me to help.

    One has to be aware of professional beggars. I like what Zuzana's friend's philosophy of the beggars vs the street performers.

    Excellent, thought provoking post, and so timely for the season.

  6. My position abut people who are seeking handouts is simple. I am happy to feed them food but not drugs. Of course this is as arbitrary as anything else but it has provided a little order in my passage through big cities.

  7. Wow, E, this is a very deeply considered and honestly presented post. You really have captured the haunting inconsistencies and contradictions that we face when faced with those in need. I too have felt that if I give to one, I will open a door that requires me to acknowledge and attend to all the others, which I haven't got the material or spiritual resources to do. So, yes, I am guilty often of turning away just to avoid that bottomless pit. I've been at the receiving end of so much generosity in my life, from kin and strangers alike, that when I do give, I do it freely and unconsciously, as if I am just a small part of an ideal world in which everyone does their part, and somehow that all balances out. Dream on! I do find that often receiving is just as fraught with troubling emotions as giving, and to learn to accept charity graciously can be as difficult as giving it with no ulterior motives or resentments! Again, thanks for this post…it will keep me thinking for a long time…

  8. Most interesting and thought-provoking – I think along very similar lines. How I manage the feelings within myself is by giving when I feel it is right (I may be wrong of course, but if it feels right then I give.) On the whole I do not give to beggars in the street because there is always a doubt as to how much they really need it, or the cirucmstances which brought them there. I tend to give to local causes, or to individuals or to what I feel are good causes. When there is a world disaster and the circumstances are too terrible to contemplate – I want to give as much as I can afford, but then I read of the people who intercept the relief and sell it for their own ends. What a cruel, unfeeling world we live in.

  9. I find I prefer to just give when it feels right to me and I do not need feed back. In fact it feels better to know as little as possible. Being tricked is a very common happening now.It has become part of everyday life among many people. Sad but a reality.

  10. "I felt too starved then to be generous to strangers. "
    This feeling is explained precisely by Albert Maslow.
    Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs is a theory we should all be familiar with.
    Many street-people are mentally ill and resist their families efforts to keep them housed and clean.

  11. I have to say I have some of the same feelings, especially thinking back on all the times I have avoided dealing with similar conditions. I wish I felt better when I give… I do sometimes.

  12. We have our share of "homeless" people in town, they like to park themselves outside the post office. They will try to say hello and start a conversation. They have signs that say they will work for food, but if you offer them work they refuse it.

    Usually by the end of the day they have gathered enough money from the guilt-ridden local folk to meander over to the liquor store and get enough to spend the rest of the evening drunk.

    If people know how their "charity" was being misused, I wonder if they would be so free to give. I believe that most of them really don't want to think about it… it is a tithe to their conscious; they can drop a few coins and move on in life guilt free.

  13. That's an interesting thought, Ms Moon to give when t feels right for the giver irrespective of what happens to the gift. A sort of unconditional giving, I suppose.

    An analogy with writing comes to my mind.

    We write and send our work out out to be read. The writing is our gift in a way. How our writing is received is another matter over which we have little, if any control.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  14. We are faced with the quandary of giving, donating, lending, helping and charitable work every day of our lives. A quick win is to always have a handful of gold coins for the various Guide Dog heads, Ronald McDonald House boxes and thousands of other collection tins and coin slots we see every day.

    This morning as I took my daughter to see her allergy doctor in East Melbourne (as I do every week) we saw the 'usual beggar' in his spot on the stairs of Parliament station. "Why doesn't he sell 'The Big Issue' instead of sitting here begging?" she asked. Good question but one that's too hard to answer; too many variables.

    Drug addiction, mental illness, lack of confidence, lack of education, poverty and/or unwillingness or disinclination. We've never given him a cent but always buy The Big Issue and have a conversation with the vendor.

    I tend to be a 'giver' – sometimes too much so according to my husband, and have been burnt many times. Not by gypsies or thieves but by well-to-do people who never volunteer for community events, school functions, environmental initiatives or even donate a bottle of wine to a raffle hamper. These people are often very high-up professionals on huge salaries who just assume that the usual bunch of 'do-gooders' will take care of things (which of course is correct). I've continually been frustrated by seeing the same faces at events or those charities that need help.

    Whilst you could argue that some of the professional 'invisibles' may donate hefty wads of cash in their free time, it seemed pretty telling when my daughter's teacher said to me last month: you were the only person who donated to the hamper we raffled off: everything else was donated by me from the winnings of a previous quiz night and via using a Coles voucher. She's aware that our household does not earn six figures even with our gross earnings combined.

    It's even sadder when I remember that Sapphire's classmates' parents include several barristers, doctors, vets, professors and business owners. How hard would it have been to hand over a bottle of wine or $50 to your child to take to school?

  15. I couldn't agree more, Glenn. If only we could share round the wealth more, a redistribution or at least a more thoughtful approach to how we take care of those less fortunate – a far better alternative to all that money spent on war.

    Thanks, Glenn.

  16. Your former boyfriend sounds a bit like my husband., Zuzana, a wish to recognize those who make an effort however meager.

    The trouble is there are those who, for whatever reason, cannot make an effort. The issue then becomes one of how do we best assist them.

    It's so vexed. Thanks, Zuzana.

  17. It is a sad indictment of society, Jim, our tendency to distrust those who claim need.

    A few years ago on our way to a restaurant for dinner one Friday night my husband and I encountered a man who to all intents and purposes looked respectable. A man in his mid thirties in casual trousers and shirt with a brief case in hand.

    This man looked a bit worse for wear, drunk I thought. As we walked by he stopped us. We stopped because we were close to home and he looked and sounded as I said, 'respectable'.

    The man then gave us a long spiel about how he had been to a farewell party for his work as a lawyer. He had only that day sold his practice and had gone into the city for a few drinks to celebrate.

    How he came to be sitting on a clump of bricks outside a block of flats in the middle of the main road in Camberwell is beyond me but he said he had stopped with friends at the pub and after some time drinking he had decided to get a tram to the station after which he planned to take a train back home to Frankston.

    None of these places will make sense to you but Frankston is some twenty five kilometers from where we live.

    This man then told us how he had lost his wallet. He had been forced to ring his sister he said and she had promised to collect him but he had already been waiting for an hour or more.

    Clearly coming from Franston herself it might take his sister ages to arrive. Could we please give him twelve dollars to cover the cost of his train fare.

    None of it made much sense in real terms. I wanted to give the fellow the money, but my husband wanted to be sure he was authentic.

    We stood for at least thirty hours quizzing him. One minute he seemed genuine, the next minute not.

    In the end we walked on and the man chased us and accused us of voting for the conservative party.

    I began to wonder whether he might have a disorder of some sort. He made little sense in the scheme of things.

    I have known people who shop lift from supermarkets, not because they need the money or the goods but because they are angry with the so-called multinatytionals.

    This tale above is at a tangent but it days something more about the difficulty of giving to strangers.

    Thanks, Jim.

  18. I too want to give to the genuine folks, Willow, but it is often hard to work out who's genuine. Hence our struggle.

    Worthiness is in the eye of the beholder.

    Thanks, Willow.

  19. You're right Laoch. I was impressed the other day when someone told me how her husband when approached by a neighbour for money – the neighbouring family was clearly in trouble, criminal background, under employed parents, no regular income etc. – he refused to give money as the father had asked for the kids’ lunches, instead he invited the father in and proceeded to make up lunches from food in his fridge. That way, he reasoned, the money would get to where he intended – into the children’s bellies.

    Thanks Laoch.

  20. I agree, it is sometimes as hard, if not harder to receive than to give, Two Tigers.

    We tend to be as fearful of the bottomless pit of others' vulnerabilities as we are of our own.

    I think this makes giving more difficult, especially giving to strangers, to those whom we do not know but with whom we can still identify from afar.

    Thanks, Two tigers for such a generous and thoughtful comment.

  21. It is very hard, Weaver, to work out how and when to give.

    I'm like you. I go for the local charities. Closer to home feels safer but then, like you, I can also feel overwhelmed by the needs of those far afield.

    It's such a minefield. Thanks, Weaver.

  22. I suppose not being concerned about whether or not someone is tricking you reduces the need for feedback, Kleinstemotte.

    Still we like to know that our intentions are met to some extent at least when we give, and yet there are no guarantees.

    Thanks for your thoughts here, Kleinstemotte.

  23. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a powerful statement, AnnODyne and I agree there are some whose mental ill health makes it impossible for them to attend to what we consider basic needs.

    Like the fellow I described to Jim earlier. I suspect he came from a background where money was not an issue but something else turned him into a beggar of sorts.

    I sensed this man would feel triumphant if he'd managed to extract money from us, not that he actually needed it.

    I may be wrong of course, it was just my sense of him. A trickster rather than a beggar.

    These issues are so complex.

    Thanks, AnnODyne.

  24. 'A tithe to conscience' is a good way to put it, Robert. Some people give to assuage their guilt.

    This is Maria Tumarkin's point. Sometimes it does not help. Sometimes people can go on unnecessarily tortured by things they cannot alleviate.

    Thanks, Robert.

  25. This is a hard post to read because it is so incredibly, deeply honest. Most people will not admit to themselves, or others, that they do not respect begging, nor do they want to give into the pressure of giving to those in need (or not in need, as we are never quite sure.)

    I will say right now that I am someone who gives cash and food, and has paid for full meals, for those who claim to be needy. My immediate thought is always: if they are feeling down enough to degrade themselves to ask for assistance, then surely I can give them something, as I am not as bad off as they are.

    A lot of times, when I had no food or cash to give, I simply looked the person in the eye, apologized sincerely, and told them that I was keeping them in my thoughts. The responses to this were incredible – people lit up, they teared up, reached out to grab my hand in thanks.

    Then I got it. I got that these people don't need money, and they don't need food, as much as they need to be treated like human beings. The respect and consideration I can take the time to show someone is invaluable; there is no amount of food or money on this planet that is an equal substitute for being treated like a human being.

    And so I give respect to people, in whatever form I can. Nobody is below deserving to be treated like a human being; and it costs nothing, it takes nothing away from you in any way, shape, or form, to do so.

    Homeless people, gypsies, druggies; they are on the streets because they do not understand that what they need above all else is to be loved. You lose nothing and you gain everything by giving them this tiny little miracle.

    Also: and I'm not saying you do this, so please don't take offense – I have no respect for people who claim to be charitable and kind and loving and yet say that God helps those who help themselves. God lifts up those who lift up each other, and it is our job as citizens of this planet to help each other stand up. We belong to each other.

    We do not trample upon others, or ignore the needy, under the guise of kindness. That is as manipulative as the woman you encountered with the gold ring.

  26. Your posts are always so thoughtful. I'm kind of schizophrenic when it comes to people who beg. Sometimes I give money – other times I resent them for reminding me how hard times are for so many people.

    I'm glad I read Phoenix's comment. It gave me more perspective on this topic.

  27. Thanks, Tracy. It's true. The worst kind of hypocrite is the one who tramples on others under the guise of offering kindness.

    I agree, too that it's important first and foremost to give people respect, no matter how abject they might appear.

    One of my brothers talked recently about getting more bees when you use honey rather than vinegar.

    It seems an apt metaphor for other things as well.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and measured response, Phoenix/Tracy.

  28. I agree Kass, Phoexix's thoughts on the matter are helpful.

    I suspect most of us are somewhat split or divided when it comes to giving.

    There are so many variables that come into play, not simply the nature of the request but also the where, when and how of us as givers.

    Thanks, Kass.

  29. I came back to apologize for the last two parts of my comment. (starting with the "Also:"). I thought about it all night long and realized, much to my chagrin, that the frustration I showed in those last two paragraphs was much less about you and this post and more about the state of politics in my own nation. Even though you were kind enough to thank me for these comments, I don't feel that they were very measured and reading them back to myself come across as highly triggered by something that has little to with your post.

    For that, I apologize sincerely. I was wrong to do that. The politics in the US have reached such a height of tension and hyperbole that I was very emotional and not the best version of myself when I wrote that comment.

    I hope you know that I always want to be respectful and kind when I comment on anyone's posts, but your posts in particular reach such a level of thoughtfulness that I aim even higher when leaving comments for you. 🙂

  30. I was not one bit offended, Phoenix. You are always respectful and I really value your comments.

    I also understand your frustration given the politics in your country where greed and self interest seem to be taking over from thoughtfulness, compassion and basic generosity towards others less fortunate.

    I feel very worried when I hear about the mid term election results.

    They reflect a terrible trend throughout the world, I suspect, of xenophobia gone mad and people saying look at me me me. But that's what happens when people feel desperate and disenfranchised.

    These difficulties are complex.

    Here in Australia with compulsory voting we are tending to get a fifty fifty split between conservative and left leaning forces, which is probably a more accurate reflection of the actual state of play.

  31. Phoenix when it comes to greed and self-interest nothing beats Australia. When it comes to a rat race Melbourne would terrify New York. Our version of the Democrats is a barker in front of a sideshow tent, pockets stuffed with $$$.

    You were right the first time, God does help those who help themselves, he loves them most.

  32. I've always liked George Orwell's take on beggars: begging is hard work.

    When I can, I give to the mentally ill on the streets.

    Anonymous giving is best for me . . .

  33. 'God helps those who helps themelves…he likes them the most' – that assumes he or she has a say in the matter.

    Fortune plays a part in life's lottery but equally there are those who are given very little who make the most of it and those who get a great deal who seem unable to make much of anything.

    It's complex, I'd say,


  34. As Orwell, says 'begging is hard work' I suspect, Mim.

    Certainly for some. For others, maybe not.

    And the psychological state of someone forced to beg on the streets changes the picture, as far as I'm concerned.

    They deserve our compassion, not our scorn.

    Thanks, Mim.

  35. It is such a difficult issue. When I visited New York in 1989 I was shocked to see all the homeless people and the beggars. The I noticed that begging was how they made their living – they stood in the subway asking for the amount of a fare. I recognised the same faces on the trains.
    Now in Australia there are people sitting near the traffic light, on the pavements. It is very confronting, but many times I harden my heart and do not give. The lack of honesty and transparency bothers me.
    I had one of those 'ring' encounters in Rome. I did give money, but the woman asked for more! She resisted suggestions that we go to the police and hand in the ring. A nice wide brass one, it was. And a well known scam!
    Like many of those who have commented, I have conflicting views and some of them make me not very proud of myself.

  36. It is hard, Persiflage to cope with some of the horrors of our experience these days. the sharp juxtaposition of rich and poor, not only in so-called third world countries now but here in relatively comfortable Australia.

    Of course it is all relative and there are places where the poverty is more obvious than less, places like in central Australia I imagine.

    We all need to find ways of coping with these divisions in our worlds, but it is still distressing. Thanks Persiflage.

  37. When I was in Sale Prison they let an old bloke out and next day be was banging on the gates to get back in. He liked the bed and three meals. No booze, that was the only problem.
    I knew fair dinkum beggars, deadbeats. They were old and alcoholic. Booze had ruined them. If you think these young spongers around Melbourne are genuine cases you're awfully naive.

  38. I suppose it depends on what you mean by a 'genuine' case, Robert. Sometimes even the well heeled are desperate.

    But I take your point about those who might prefer prison to life in the open, especially once they've been thoroughly institutionalised.

    Thanks, Robert.

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