25 January, 2009

Beg, Borrow, or Steal

When I was a young person, we all used a common expression to describe someone in dire straits, and that was to say they were ready to “beg, borrow, or steal”. Generally, we were talking about someone being desperate for money. So, the person was ready to beg, borrow, or steal money and they were very often wanting to beg, borrow, or steal money from a close family member or friend. There was no distinction made between these three activities. They were all an indication of equally humiliating and abysmal behavior.

You have to wonder how the act of asking someone for funds or borrowing money could be lumped into the same category as stealing money. In any case, I grew up believing it was wrong to ask for or borrow money from anyone.

Many years later, while travelling through some of the large cities of Europe, I was confronted for the first time with people begging in public. Such encounters tended to make me feel uncomfortable. A friend of mine at that time, used to be a busker. He supported himself through many (many) years of university by driving a taxi at night and busking on the weekends. I remember one afternoon, as we were walking through the streets of Munich, him telling me about his busking experiences.

He considered busking as an activity somewhere between a creative artful form of begging and a viable form of employment for someone with anarchistic leanings. We argued back-and-forth about the subject for a long time. He was in his eighth year at the university (you got to know the German university system to understand that this is a relatively common phenomena) and so this type of intellectual discussion was common, as well as long and complex. To be totally honest, these discussion were also a lot of bullshit. Yet, in amongst all of the intellectual garbage, this friend presented me with a jewel of an idea that I have held onto since.

He said, “When someone is begging, they are just expressing their need. They are asking us to help them. We can freely choose to give them help or not. The choice is ours to make.” It doesn’t matter what the person is asking for, it is up to us to reflect and respond according to our beliefs.

I happen to believe that no one lives their life fully without giving and taking in equal measure. So, when I give, I do it with a “yes, please” in my heart, and when I don’t give, I try to express a gentle “no, thank you” in my thoughts, if not express the words out loud. The choice is not always simple, but it is usually easy to make.

I happen to live in a relatively small city (population over 200,000) in northern Germany. It is large enough to have homeless people, buskers playing in our market place, and people begging on some of the busy street corners. The city is small enough for someone, like myself, who lives in the center of the city to recognize these people, not necessarily by name, but by face. On the other hand, the world is also small enough that I regularly recognize two of the troubled youths who hang around the market place begging for money and drinking beer, because one is my niece and the other the son of a good friend. What I have discovered over the last years, is that it doesn’t matter whether it is through family connection or sheer banal urban social interaction, on some level, I am aware of the needs of these persons. And, even if I cannot solve their problems or lighten their burdens, I can choose to help them.

Sometimes this happens by exchanging a greeting or making small talk. Sometimes it is in the form of goods for a food bank or charity drive or church bazaar. Often it is in the form of small change from my jacket pocket. Long ago, I began to put nearly all my coin change in my pocket instead of in my wallet. It is as easy as that. When there is change in my pocket, which is nearly always, and when I pass someone begging, I often give them some money.

I am not presenting these actions as a solution to these people's problems or a way to lighten their loads, I am just offering help to someone when there is a need. As written in the words of one my favourite poets, Tao Te Ching,

“Those who are good I treat as good. Those who are not good I also treat as good. In so doing I gain in goodness. Those who are of good faith I have faith in. Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in. In so doing I gain in good faith.”

Sadly, I am not able to always live these words, but I do aspire to them.

1 comment:

  1. I can identify with what you are saying. We have a lot of very poor in our city. I am far far from rich -- in fact, I live on a poverty level income. However, I do what I can when I can to help others in need.