I had an experience over the weekend that was oddly discomforting. I was at our local art fair with a friend, and while my friend went into a kiosk, I watched a young woman in a bridal gown get photographed under some trees. A clean, well-dressed woman stopped beside me and talked about the bride’s happiness, then smoothly segued into her own sadness. She’d just come from her father’s funeral, she said, so it was a bad day for her. I expressed my sympathy. She seemed like a very nice woman, so sympathy came easily. Then she said she’d come from Jamaica for his funeral, was homeless, and didn’t have any money.
The smart part of me said, “Uh-oh,” but she was so well spoken and likable that the gullible part of me said maybe she was telling the truth. I said I was sorry for her troubles, and asked if she had contacted any agencies that might help her. It actually crossed my mind to offer her my guest room. She then came right out and asked if I’d give her money for food. Said she hadn’t eaten in four days and might faint any minute. So while fair goers flowed past us, I scrounged in my wallet and gave her all the ones I had. She said she really needed more because the Salvation Army wouldn’t give her a bed unless she paid for it. About that time, my friend came out of the kiosk with her purchase, saw me with my wallet open and my brain closed and smoothly hustled me away.
My friend said it’s always good to give, and I agree with her. I can afford to lose the few dollar bills I gave her, and I tell myself that the woman might be an honest person who has been reduced to begging because of circumstances I can’t even imagine. What bothers me is that I was so caught off guard by a stranger’s blatant face-to-face request for money. I have no problem deleting phony email requests, but I must have become more vulnerable to personal encounters. I tell myself that if I still lived in a large city where smooth beggars are more common, I would have been less of an easy touch. That’s probably true, but it’s also true that believing was easier than calling the woman a liar. She was a pro who told her phony story without any embarrassment, and I gave her money to spare myself the embarrassment of confronting her.
Since I believe that everybody I meet has some kind of important message for me — as I do for them — I’ve been trying to find the woman’s message. I think it may be that while it’s good to feel compassion for another person’s misfortune, there’s no merit in letting somebody take advantage of me because I feel compassion for them. It’s also stupid to play the patsy to keep from being embarrassed by saying no. I’m going to pay attention to both those messages, because next time it may be more than a few dollar bills that I’ll be tempted to give, and I won’t be helping anybody.