A New Christmas Tradition: Giving to Beggars and Panhandlers Instead of Each Other
I’m posting this on Christmas day and so I want to make it somewhat on topic, the problem is I’m not a Christian so I don’t celebrate Christmas. Beyond that, I despise the wanton waste and destruction that Christmas has become and I’ve been preaching against it for a long time. But it’s not good to only be against something without being for something better, so today I want to talk about what I believe is the true meaning of Christmas and how each of us can celebrate it whatever our faith or even if we are atheists/agnostics.
If you want to celebrate the life of Christ, the best way to do it is to live like he suggested we live (I believe it’s critically important to learn from all the Great Master Teachers of the past and even present). We can argue endlessly over his words but there’s no getting around the way he lived and the actions he told us to take like these:
41 “Then he will say to those on his left…. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:41-45
By his life and by his words Jesus demonstrated a need to reach out and care for the neediest, worst, lowest and least of our society. Today I want to talk about panhandlers, the beggars we all see constantly on our daily trips through town, and suggest we all start a new tradition of giving gifts to the truly needy instead of to each other who already have so much. I suggest you consider to take whatever you are planning to spend at Christmas and save that to give away throughout the year to those in need. For example, if you were going to spend $365 in gifts, explain to your friends and family that you are giving it to the poor instead. Then get out $30 at the beginning of each month and give that away to the poor either $1 a day to a beggar or as a gift to some charity that works with the homeless.
Giving to the needy is a very complex and confusing topic so I’m not passing judgment on you however you’ve decided to handle it. Many people sincerely believe that giving food or money to beggars is counter-productive and actually does them more harm than good—and they can make a good case supporting that view. I’m not going to try to change your mind but I do want to present both sides of the argument and tell you what I’ve decided to do and why. This is already a long post so it’ll be in two parts. Today will be my philosophy and the next one will be specific reasons why I give to beggars.
Reasons NOT to give to Beggars:
- They’re scam artists. We’ve all heard the stories of people who stand all day on the corner holding up signs begging for help and then go get in their Mercedes Benz and drive home. I suspect the stories are exaggerated, but there’s no question that some beggars are scam artists. Unless you take the time to follow them all day, there’s no way to be sure which are legit and which are deceiving you
- Some beggars are making careers out of begging rather than work. The common feeling about them is, “I’ve had to work for everything I’ve got and they should too.” It’s hard to argue against that.
- They’ll use it to buy drugs and alcohol. Again, there’s no question that happens a lot. If you give a panhandler money, fairly often it will probably go toward drugs and alcohol.
- There are too many of them. There are so many of them, and most of us are low-income ourselves, so it’s easy to just pretend they aren’t there. If we can’t know which ones are truly needy, and we can’t give to all of them anyway, it’s easy to just ignore them all and give nothing to any of them.
- There are already systems in place to care for them. My money could better help in other places.
- Some of them might be criminals looking for easy prey to victimize.
All those are good reasons to not give to beggars and I’m not going to in any way judge you for that decision or try to change your mind. What I am going to do is tell you why I’ve decided that I will give to beggars and tell you my thinking in reaching that decision. What you do with that information is entirely up to you.
In this post I’m going to give you the single most compelling reason I give to beggars no matter who they are or what they do with the money. Then in another post I’ll answer each of the above objections with my conclusion about them.
Life Needs Meaning: A Life of Service and Love
For me to be truly happy, I believe my life must have a meaning. I think we all know that meeting our basic survival necessities is essential to happiness, but it’s nowhere near enough to make us truly happy. The only meaning that I’ve found that brought me peace, joy and contentment is a life lived in love and service to others. I’ve tried many other things but that’s the only one that has worked. These are some other things I tried:
- Finding happiness through Pleasure. No matter how good it felt, it was never enough. As soon as the pleasure of the moment wore off I was left empty and hollow and needing more to feel better again. It was an endless and pointless pursuit that never in any way satisfied me.
- Finding happiness through Work. At one point I decided I would work my way up the company ladder and gain more money, power and prestige. But that didn’t work any better than pleasure. It was just a lot more work and hassle without any reward. I know many people find great reward in it, but I got none—so I went back to just being a worker.
- Finding happiness through Money. I love shopping and spending money! The phrase “shopaholic” or “shopping therapy” perfectly apply to me! However, just like everything else I tried, I found no lasting satisfaction in it. As soon as I had something new the magic of it wore off and I had to shop for and buy the next thing to get it back
- Finding happiness through family. I was married twice and both brought me nothing but misery. I did have two children which is truly a great thing but I came to the point of self-awareness to know that I loved them for what they could do for me and not unconditionally. It wasn’t until I learned to love unconditionally that they became a source of deep happiness.
The first 45 years of my life were dedicated to finding happiness where it’s impossible to find it—big surprise that I was never happy! When my unhappiness reached a point of wrecking my life I was finally willing to do anything to find it. I was very fortunate to find a program that offered me everything I needed.
The living, breathing, heart and soul of the spiritual program I follow is unconditional love—the kind of unconditional love that Jesus describes in the paragraphs above. When I finally took an honest look at myself I found that to some degree my every action with other people was based on selfishness. I was being good to you, for my own gain. Behind my every relationship was an “I’ll love you if ….”
- you look good on my arm.
- you treat me the way I want to be treated.
- you never wrong me.
- you make me proud of you.
- you never embarrass me.
- you never annoy me.
What I learned is that’s not love at all, that’s self-absorption and self-seeking in the guise of love and my life was totally full of it. The program I follow has a code to guide our lives by and it’s very simple, “Love and Tolerance of others is our code” At the end of every night it suggests I do an inventory of myself and one of the questions I need to ask is “Was I loving and Kind toward all.” If not, do I need to make an amends to make it right?
The program I follow describes itself this way. “Simple but not easy, it meant the destruction of self-centeredness.” And that’s the goal of everything in the program; the switch from being “me-centered” to “we-centered.” Of course the reason I follow the program is so I can be happy which is also selfish. There’s no getting around it, there’s always some self in every action, but as I followed the program with my whole heart, it changed me. Even though there is always the selfish desire for a good life even in attempting to be self-less, to a surprising degree there is actually an honest desire for the good of others without the thought of reward. I still fail daily, sometimes hourly, but I claim spiritual progress and not spiritual perfection.
So the bottom line is when I see a beggar, even if there is only a 50-50 chance I’m doing a really good thing by helping them (I’m certain the percentage is much higher) I feel like unconditional love demands that I do it. The fact that they may be deceiving and stealing from me doesn’t offset the demand of unconditional love to feed the least in our society. In my opinion, unconditional love simply doesn’t walk by someone who is starving and do nothing, so neither do I.
Science Agrees with the Need for Self-Transcendence
In 1943 a psychologist named Abraham Maslow published a paper on his theory of developmental psychology in which he proposed that humans had a hierarchy of needs and that as soon as one was met people moved on to fulfill the next level. He developed 5 levels of needs beginning with basic physical needs and moving up to the need to be the very best you could be which he termed as self-actualization. His theory remains popular and widely accepted today.
In the 1970s, after a lifetime of study, he added a 6th level to the hierarchy of needs that he called Self-Transcendence which he described as liberation from egocentricity. It’s the move from being primarily interested in yourself and becoming equally concerned with the well-being of others. Unlike the other needs, be believed you could achieve Self-Transcendence at any time in your life and at any stage of growth.
I believe that the act of consciously connecting with a beggar by giving him a gift of food or money is an act of Self-Transcendence that will elevate every aspect of your life and set you on a path to a better life. At first, I found it was a gift based on guilt and embarrassment, I was giving for the reward I could get of not feeling guilty or hoping it would build up my Karma. But as I made a determined effort to make it a gift based on unconditional love, it changed me.
In my next post on this topic I’ll tell you how I answer the above reasons not to give to beggars.