Can we ever truly give?

Jan 8, 2015 by

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Stop at any major intersection in Austin, Texas, and you will see someone with a sign asking for money, food or a job. It is a given in this city. Some of the people standing there have chosen that as their lifestyle often because of fear of the government and subsequent desire to live off that radar. Most, though, have fallen on hard times through one factor or another. We like to pretend we know those reasons and use our imagined reasons to justify our judgment and dismissal of them, but that is just about us and has nothing to do with who they are.

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In Josh Paler Lin’s recent video experiment, he gave $100 to a person asking for money at an intersection, then followed him to see how he would spend it.

The popularity of this recent video revealed some of our assumptions. As an experiment a YouTuber gave a homeless man $100 and then secretly followed him to film what he did. The homeless man went to a liquor store and come out with several bags. Then he went to a local park where he passed out food he had just bought. The filmmaker approached him and spent the time to learn his story. It is a touching story about the kindness of one man, but that is not the reason it went viral. The video was made because the assumption was that a homeless person would spend money on something inappropriate like liquor. It was only the fact that he did not live up to our preconceived judgments about him that made the story so popular.

It’s our dirty little habit this judging of people. We assume that we know them and know what they should and should not be doing with any assistance they are given. Who cares how much money we might spend on alcohol (especially if it’s money given to us for spending money in college, or if we are on the company dime), we insist we know how best the homeless should use charity they are given. Or we see a woman with a smartphone and nice haircut use food stamps and then rant about people who abuse the system. She doesn’t look “poor” (which we assume must mean dirty and unkempt) so we judge, forgetting that a smartphone and good appearance is the only way she is able to seek a job to improve her situation. Our idea of how we want the world to work dictates how we care for the struggling in our midst.

But our self-centered charity does not stop there.

This struck me yesterday as I was stopped at an intersection and saw a man there holding a sign. As he walked down the line of idling cars, I noticed that he was wearing a hoodie with the Jack Daniels logo on it and carrying a sign that read: “Cuss me out for a dollar.” I had to laugh at his ingenuity. He knows that most people assume the homeless are drunks who need a lecture about their poor life choices. And he called us on that. Go ahead and be the self-righteous jerk who judges the homeless, but stop hiding behind your façade. All he is asking for is a dollar to let you be in public who you truly are in private. Brilliant, I thought, and gave him a dollar, wishing him a good day.

I don’t regret that, but it struck me that I rarely give to simply give. I pack bags of food with my kids and we distribute them to the homeless, in part so my kids can learn about those in need. I give money to those at the intersections whose signs I find interesting (like the guy yesterday). “Family abducted by aliens. Need ransom money.” “You might live in a $200,000 house, but I live under a $2 million bridge.” I was momentarily entertained by their signs, so I rewarded them. Similarly the guys that stand at the intersection juggling or who offer to wash windshields seem to get more responses. They did something for us, therefore they deserve our charity.

It happens all the time. Charity auctions raise far more money than straight asks for money. Why? We get something out of it, even if it is just the opportunity to dress up and attend an event. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure. As Derrida philosophized, there can never be such a thing as an unselfish gift. We are always looking for something in return, even if it is merely a “thank you.” But it is something we must always be aware of. Too often we do unto others because it is best for us. We get some sort of reward, even if that reward is the ability to judge and impose our ideas of how others should live their lives onto them. Perhaps this can never be fully escaped, but we can at least start being aware of that fact and begin to explore what it might look like to do unto others as they would have done unto them.

Julie Clawson is author of The Hunger Games and the Gospel and Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family and blogs at

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