Tis the season of giving … and if somehow we weren’t already aware, our mailboxes, TVs, radios, social feeds, emails and even texts remind us of the many people who are in need and the many ways …
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Tis the season of giving … and if somehow we weren’t already aware, our mailboxes, TVs, radios, social feeds, emails and even texts remind us of the many people who are in need and the many ways we can help them.
I have no doubt that, when we can, most of us give us much as we can. Some years the ability is greater, and some years the need is greater. Recently, though, such charity has felt largely impersonal … done over the phone, on the internet or through the mail, when someone else has already convinced me how much I care.
To make my decisions, I rely on passion, wisdom and compassion. I support a few organizations consistently, including (no surprise here) Writing for Peace and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and I sporadically donate to others. I drop money in red kettles and drive around with a stash of small bills to hand out at street corners.
I have learned, however, that even the most well-intentioned gestures are sometimes misplaced.
Last summer, while waiting for a friend on a Whole Foods patio, I met the intense gaze of a man sitting alone. His appearance was a bit unkempt with crumpled clothes too heavy for the July temperatures and sun-blond hair in semi-dreadlocks His face was so weathered I had no idea of his age.
I watched him watch other people who came outside the store to enjoy their food. He spoke to no one, but seemed focused on what they were eating. I went into Whole Foods, bought a sandwich and coffee, and brought them out to him.
To say his reaction was unexpected is to underestimate my shock. He stood up with his palms out, as if to ward me off. He didn’t need my offerings, he told me. Flustered, I continued to insist that I had purchased the food specifically for him. He took it and left the patio.
To my further surprise, however, he soon emerged from Whole Foods and handed me a gift card – he had returned the food and received store credit for it. As he departed on foot through the parking lot, I was left, stunned, to ponder my own audacity.
Why had this attempt at gift giving gone wrong? His appearance was a factor in my decision, yes, but he had truly seemed to envy the meals others. I’ve purchased sandwiches and coffee for street people before, to varying degrees of gratitude, but have never had a reaction such as his.
Perhaps I gave offense by assuming he was homeless, hungry and in need of help. Perhaps I embarrassed him. Or perhaps I so misjudged his life situation that he himself was in shock.
I could have asked him first, or simply taken the food back. And, of course, I could have done nothing at all.
Although I’m not sure I would have acted differently then, I did learn that give-and-receive situations with such deeply personal interactions require both tact and humility, as well as an intuitive compass.
So although I’ll go online now to click the buttons for my season-of-giving contributions to organizations with which I am already impassioned … I’ll let wisdom and compassion, as well as tact and humility, guide my compass for the rest.
Andrea Doray is a writer who urges us to consider the people, the animals, the environment and the future as we make our giving decisions year round. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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