When you pull up at a red light and there’s someone on the street with a sign saying “Anything helps,” how do you respond?
This used to be a big question for me. I went back and forth for years about what the “right” response was. Do I give them money or keep going about my day?
I used to think about this a lot, as if I was enrolled in some moral philosophy class that took place only in my head. The debate — to give or not to give — would begin anew each time I passed someone asking for money.
“They obviously need help,” I would think, “but anything I can offer would be insignificant. Also, this is a structural problem, at best my dollar would be a Band-Aid. Besides, what are they going to spend it on? Should I offer to buy them food? Or is that none of my business?” And so on…
By the time the internal dialogue began, it was irrelevant. The moment would pass. The light would turn green and I would be a block away, hurtling on with the rest of my day. Sometimes I felt sad. I often felt guilty or ashamed. I always felt frustrated.
Then one day, almost two years ago, something shifted. I’m not sure what it was, but I made a simple decision: from then on if someone asked me for money and I had cash with me, I’d give them at least a dollar.
At the time I remember thinking, “This might not make a difference for anyone, but it seems like a good way to practice generosity.” Two years later, I realize this practice has shifted my own life in ways I hadn’t expected.
Giving money to strangers in need will make you a better person
After two years of giving people money when they asked, I realized that what I was actually doing was training my brain to choose compassion (instead of indecision and frustration). Financially speaking, giving someone a dollar is nearly inconsequential. But acknowledging their request for help is profound. It’s one of the best ways to practice being compassionate.
What is compassion? I actually don’t like the dictionary definition: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Let me offer a simpler and more profound way of thinking about it.
Compassion is seeing that other people share our humanity. They have a full life with dreams, challenges, relationships, and people who love them — just like you do. When you see this to be true, the normal response is to connect and help. The Dalai Lama explains compassion similarly:
“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason…. Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one’s own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them.”
If you want to see compassion in action, go watch the latest film about Mr. Rogers: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Tom Hanks masterfully acts out Fred Rogers’ commitment to everyone’s humanity, which is exemplified in his generosity towards a troubled journalist. Rogers’ choice to reach out and help begins a process that shifts the journalist’s cynicism and heals a relationship with his dying father.
How to make choosing compassion a non-decision
If you presented me with the same debate now — to give or not to give? — I wouldn’t hesitate. I always give if I’m able. And if someone is asking me for money on the street I’m always able, because any amount counts.
To be clear, I’m not perfect and I didn’t get here overnight. Like anything, choosing compassion is a skill you can practice. If you want to try it out, here’s what I suggest:
Make a commitment, beginning now, to give strangers at least a dollar any time they ask you. Asking includes holding a sign or making some other gestures that leaves it reasonably clear they’d love your help. (The only exception is if you don’t feel safe stopping or talking to them.)
Your first step is to take out some cash and make sure you have small bills. Do this tomorrow. Then next time someone asks you for money, give them a dollar and say something kind. Commit to continuing this for a year and tell a friend who will hold you accountable. Ask them to check in on you every once in a while to make sure you’re fulfilling your goal.
You won’t always do it, and to get better at choosing compassion you’ll want to do some self observation. When someone asks you for money, notice what your brain does. Mine makes excuses: “It’s not convenient to stop. What if the light turn green while they’re walking over to my window? I only have a five dollar bill. I just spent a bunch of money, I’m not in a place to be giving it away.”
Notice the thoughts that come up for you, and choose to give them money anyway.
Don’t let your less-than-perfect track record discourage you. When I started trying this out I listened to my excuses and justifications more often than not. I might have succeed 25% of the time my first month.
Today I’m probably over 80% “give,” and my commitment to this practice has trickled into other acts of compassion. It’s gotten easier for me to put myself in other people’s shoes, and I’ve stopped hesitating when I see someone needs help.
Two weeks ago I pulled over on the road to help a (self-described) disabled homeless man get up off the sidewalk and back into his wheelchair. The week before I stopped on the interstate and drove someone who was out of gas — and money — to and from the nearest station to fill a gas can.
These detours changed my day for the better, mostly because I was so inspired by the people I stopped to help. Stopping to help wasn’t comfortable or easy, but it was meaningful. It made me more like the person I want to be.