Thanks, but no thanks

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ISSUE It is worth examining your state of mind after your helping hand has been evaded or brushed aside

The old beggar woman lay half-crouched on the pavement and I stepped around her as I hurried past on an errand. I normally don’t give alms but she looked so feeble that I wondered in passing if she had eaten lately. Fifteen minutes later I was returning that way, lost in thought as usual, walking on the pavement on the opposite side when voila! There she was, having moved (or had she been moved?) across the street. It was an omen, I decided. On an impulse I entered the bakery just 20 feet away. If she was starving, juice might be a better option than a bun. I asked for one of those small cartons of — what flavour, now? Having already presumed she was ill-fed, I thought acidic orange would sear an empty stomach and therefore chose a soothing guava.

I ripped the plastic straw off the carton, inserted it into the sealed hole, came out of the bakery and saw — nothing. She had gone, split, vamoosed. I gawked at the spot she’d been lying on. I scanned the street, looked to the left and to the right. Did she pick herself up, torn blanket and all, and make a run for it? I walked away clutching the carton, went home and drank the juice, feeling quite disgruntled. Then I saw the ridiculous side of it. Imagine sulking because someone rejected your help! Well, she hadn’t actually spurned me but, you know, after all the labour I’d expended on her, to disappear on me was just not cricket, eh, old girl?

The norm is that you feel upset when people ask for a favour and don’t bother acknowledging you once they’ve got it. But it is worth examining your state of mind after your helping hand has been evaded or brushed aside. Your ego is dented. You feel cheated of your chance to wear a halo, to tot up extra points in your heavenly account. Even if you’re not the worst kind of do-gooder who expects bended-knee gratitude from the beneficiary, you can’t help feeling a bit miffed that something you did with the best intentions has gone to waste. Take the example of advice. When it entails moral or emotional support, it is fraught with pitfalls. You balance on the tightrope between being judgmental and non-committal. You spend hours advising someone about domestic violence or alcohol addiction or whatever, only to find him or her doing the exact opposite of what you suggested by going back to husband or drink or whatever. You try your best not to be sore about it but, come on, it was only because they had asked for it that you’d put forth Plan A with much hesitation, so how could they drop it in favour of Plan B? You say to yourself, that’s it, that’s the last time I’m going to lend someone a shoulder to cry on. The problem lies in your own expectations. You not only want to help but you also want proof that you’ve been helpful, proof of success. I guess we all have to learn to offer help and then, whether it is accepted or not, forget that we ever did. Move on.

On the face of it, financial help seems the easiest to provide. You might believe there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a wallet or a cheque-book. But if you genuinely care for a needy person you would take the trouble to find out how best you can fulfil that need, instead of making a casual, spur-of-the-moment donation. All our governments tend to behave the way I did with the beggar woman — thrust stuff on the disadvantaged (and I’m speaking of an ideal situation, when promises are actually kept). A simple question that is never asked: “What exactly would you like us to do for you?” Another question, rarely asked: “Am I offending your dignity?” Remember how truckloads of old clothes were dumped on roads in tsunami-affected areas, unclaimed because the victims didn’t care to be treated like beggars? Oh yes, giving can be dicey. Even if the garment you give away to your domestic worker looks almost new, you’d better tell her with a careless air, “See if you can find some person who might use this.” Knowing full well that she will herself wear it on her next Sunday outing.

While we’re on the subject, my employee narrated a fantastic story about a beggar, which her husband had told her. Fact, rumour or fairytale, you decide. There’s a beggar who’s been sitting on Dispensary Road (off Commercial Street) every day for 30 years or more. He apparently owns several houses and many cars including a Benz. The husband spoke to the beggar’s chauffeur who drives him home in the evening after a day’s ‘work’. The man purportedly quoted his employer as saying, “I continue to beg only because I must be faithful to the job that made me who I am today.” My employee said excitedly, “It’s true, ma, we had gone to Dispensary Road on Sunday and I saw with my own eyes someone putting a fifty-rupee note on his mat! Imagine how much he must earn in a day.”

Now that’s a man who gladly accepts all the help he can get, and then some.

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