It’s primal, it’s biblical, it’s the moral physics of the universe in action: The have meets the have-not. In the subway, on the street, at the traffic light, along the underpass, anywhere in America. What happens next?
You, patently, have. Warmth, comfort, accessible hygiene, a fridge, a place to go, a buffer or two against intolerable pressure. The person in front of you, patently, has not. A look suffices to tell you that. Their lack imprints itself upon your abundance. And they’re asking you for money. Do you give it? Should you? Must you? Do you want to?
We can dispense immediately with the traditional canard: They’ll only spend it on drugs. What a pernicious mingling of Ayn Randian screw-’em-ism and liberal faux concern. Maybe they will spend it on drugs. Or maybe they’ll spend it on a new copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, to replace the one that disappeared when their campsite of two years was deconstructed—in their absence—by park rangers. The point is, how they spend it is none of your business.
Let’s get back to the encounter itself. Awkward, isn’t it? The system of which you are a functioning part has thrown the person before you into a transparent condition of penury and exile. Perhaps you feel a flickering of shame. And then a flickering of annoyance at the flickering of shame. Jesus Christ, their hands are out and their tin cups are rattling—why can’t they leave you alone? Affluence is no picnic. You have a prescription to refill, a phone to upgrade, a car to get repaired. This pullulating need—it’s too much.
Here’s my tip: If you’re temperamentally indisposed, keep your money. A penny given a poor man “grudgingly,” wrote the French Catholic mystic Léon Bloy, “pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe.” So don’t do that.
But if you are inclined to give, then give wholeheartedly. Not for charity, not for empathy, not for any groaning abstraction, but that the divine economy of giving might circulate through you unobstructed. Through your glands and through your veins. The person before you needs money, and you need to give it. Unplug the wellspring of life, and hand it over.
This article appears in the April 2022 print edition.