The poor among us

I don’t believe in charity.  I suspect we often do it more for ourselves than for those we help. I also think it takes away the urgency from the need to reform society itself.  But, in practice, I have trouble ignoring those who come to my door or knock on my car window for help.

My problem is particularly with those who not only extend their hands for alms but also take time to tell their stories. I don’t like looking into the defeated eyes of those who, by begging, have surrendered every measure of their pride as human beings.

“Give no bounties, make equal laws, secure life and property,” advised Emerson, “and you need not give alms.  Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands.  In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile to the industrious, brave and persevering.” Emerson is right.  But ours has never been a just commonwealth. I refuse to think that the poor in our society are poor because they lack industry, bravery and perseverance.

I cannot forget being rebuffed by a young boy in his teens who was selling flannel cleaning cloth in the streets.  “Eight for a hundred,” he chanted, fixing his eyes on me.  “I just need to sell one more set before I go to school,” he said in a tone of exhaustion. Indeed, he was in a school uniform.  “Sorry, I just bought some the other day,” I responded with genuine regret, “but here take these,” I said, offering him a couple of peso coins.  He looked at me unsmiling, and chided me with these words: “Sir, I am not begging, I am selling.”  I felt slighted.  I wanted to tell him that I meant well and that he should not be so proud.  But, I checked myself: why shouldn’t he be proud? As he walked away, I silently rejoiced in the thought that at least one boy in the streets would someday make it in the world.

Since then I have been very cautious in dealing with hawkers and beggars in the streets.  Whether I give or not, buy or not, I make it a point to look at the face before me, as an act of recognition. It is the least I can do for another human being.  “The face speaks,” the philosopher Levinas writes.  It communicates its vulnerability at once: “there is an essential poverty in the face; the proof of this is that one tries to mask this poverty by putting on poses, by taking on a countenance.”

Recognition, however, triggers a relationship, whose ethics I do not easily navigate. To this day, being in the presence of a person begging for help always produces in me a profound unease.  I feel defenseless and trapped; this man is not my responsibility, I tell myself, but why can’t I ignore him? He is one of us, that is why, and no Filipino should live without hope, or go without help when he needs it.  He is my responsibility, and the concreteness of his situation mocks the abstractness of everything I write or espouse.  I have no right to require a rational accounting of a man’s despair before I give help.

A little context might explain these musings.  About three weeks ago, a frail young man came to my house and introduced himself as Angelo. Though his face was vaguely familiar, I was quite sure I had not met him before.  He said he used to work as a contractual janitor at the Palma Hall building in the UP Diliman campus where I teach. He told me that his daughter had been bitten in the head by a rabid dog and needed expensive anti-rabies shots. He said he had been able to raise P700 and he needed P300 more.  I felt very sorry for this young father, a picture of desolation and shame.  He had been jobless for a while, he said. I hardly said anything; I gave him the money and wished him well.

Angelo showed up again the other day, a little paler than before. Before I could recognize him, he shook my hand. He said he had come to inform me that is daughter had died.  She needed more injections and he had been unable to raise the money to buy the expensive shots. I looked at him in disbelief, wondering how many times things like this happen in our hospitals.  He had come this time to ask for some money to buy biscuits and coffee for people at the wake.  For some strange reason, I instantly thought of all the billions spent during elections, the trillions paid for the public debt, and the distressing state of our public hospitals.

Perhaps Angelo’s desperation was infectious; I suddenly felt agitated and angry.  I found myself grilling him about the hospital to which he had brought his daughter and the doctor who attended to her.  I asked him if he had sought the help of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, or the Philippine Charity and Sweepstakes Office.  My reaction confused him.  He looked at me with sad uncomprehending eyes, and I realized I had not even offered him my sympathies. When he left, I knew I had behaved very badly.  I don’t remember how much I gave him. I could have given him all the money in my pocket that day, and it would not have erased the unwarranted pain I had caused him.

I wish I knew when to stop being a social analyst or a political activist. The man had come seeking compassion, and I gave him a lecture and an interrogation.  Too often, I think we fail to conduct ourselves as human beings for others because our moral or ideological righteousness gets in the way of our basic responsibility.

Every poor man who comes to us begging for help has a story to tell. We may never know how much truth there is in these tales.  But does it really matter? In such encounters I think we must keep our doubts to ourselves, not say anything, and only listen. Levinas sums it up with this line from Dostoyevsky: “We are all responsible for all and for all men before all, and I more than all the others.”


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