This post is in response to Writing Workshop Prompts in association with ActionAid: Giving
Last Sunday, as I attended Mass at the church in the French village where we were married, there was, as there has lately always been, a silent middle-aged man standing at the door as the worshippers shuffled past into the building. In his hand he held a small receptacle, no more than a couple of inches across. He had no sign, and said nothing, but merely gazed at the people as they went in. There was nothing in the man’s collecting cup. I too, with a pang of guilt, walked past him without giving. I knew that the few euros in my pocket were reserved for the collection that would shortly take place during the service. I would rather harden my heart at the door than face the embarrassment of refusing the alms plate that would be held out to me by one of the nuns from the convent.
Giving. It’s such a complex thing, so many contrary currents. I feel I need to tell you, since all you know thus far is this stony lack of generosity, that I make regular donations to 4 or 5 charities every month from my salary, that I’m part of the payroll-giving scheme at work. Why? I don’t know you. You don’t know me. What does your opinion of me, of my willingness to give, matter that I should feel so driven to self-justification?
The scene switches. Now I’m at a London tube station. In the entrance is a young man, almost hidden in his grubby sleeping bag. A dog lies at his feet. There’s a notice on the opposite side of the ticket hall. “Do not give to beggars in this station.” It goes on to assure me that to do so would merely encourage people to come to the station and inconvenience passengers, and that what I might give will in any case only be used to buy alcohol or drugs. The message is clear. Giving to beggars on the street does more harm than good.
For all I know, that might be true. And yet I feel torn by this advice. I don’t want to do more harm than good. I want to do the right thing. And I’m sure that the regular, almost bureaucratic, generosity of my standing orders and payroll, tax-efficient, giving is the more rational, more effective method of doing that right thing. Charities welcome the regular receipt of gifts that they can rely on, and use to manage their cash-flow and the planning of their good works. And yet.
And yet there is an immediacy, a real human connection, in these direct transactions between the needy person there in front of us and our consciences. A connection that is lost when giving is so automated, so mechanised, so, in a sense, sanitised. But, on the other hand, if we give in direct response to visible need, or what we perceive to be need, and ignore the rational, objective, facts of what’s effective, are we in fact giving not in response to that need, but in response to our own needs: the need to feel that we’re good people, the need, as I had earlier in this post, to make myself look good to those who might observe me, even if only through reading this blog?
I don’t know. But I do know this much. I know that none of what I give month by month, to rainforest peoples, to my local church, to Oxfam, to this, that, and the other, could have assuaged my guilt as I walked passed that man outside the church, as I took the advice of the posters on the tube station, and ignored that real, visible need, there, in front of my very eyes.