What do you do when you're approached by a beggar? It's uncomfortable. They catch us unaware. We don't want to feel bad for refusing, but we also don't want to be conned, so most of us develop a script in our head to follow.
That way we have a planned response and don't have to react when suddenly someone asks us for money. After all, we're pretty sure they will probably spend it on alcohol or drugs, or that they are part of an organised cartel making money off the gullible. And, as I had decided from a development perspective, begging isn't a long-term solution to poverty. Yes, I packed this idea away along with my passport and Imodium.
I was comfortable with my schema for dealing with beggars. When an outstretched palm came along, it activated a mental process that said: Oh, okay, I already have the answer to this question. It's no.
It was dusk in Kenya, and I was walking back to my hotel. A boy of about 11 or 12 came out of nowhere and approached me. He was very dishevelled and dirty, and put his hand out. This caught me unawares and hit an awkward gap in my armour plating. I don't know why. I immediately refused on cue, although I felt more uncomfortable than usual. He signalled that he was hungry. Something about him really disturbed me. The desperation in his eyes. But I didn't want to acknowledge the way he made me feel, so I focused on following through my refusal and getting into the hotel. He followed me right to the gate. I looked at him once more and hesitated.
Then I walked away. The security guard blocked the path of the child.
I don't know if hunger was gnawing away at that child that night, but the question was eating me alive. What if it was that simple? What if he was just a hungry child and I had walked away? My rationale was suddenly threadbare. In what way was our long-term development helping this child survive tonight? We didn't work in this urban setting anyway. I mean, I knew I couldn't respond to every beggar I met in Nairobi or New Delhi -- I would be overwhelmed and my pockets emptied every time I went down the street. Yet a child the same age as one of my sons at home was on the streets tonight. I felt sick. I felt the hypocrisy of everything I stood for staring at me from the uncomplicated and hopeful eyes of that young boy.
I woke early and felt the same. At the large breakfast buffet, offering me dozens of accusing choices for my next meal, I ran into Tom from my organisation, who just happened to be in the country and happened to be staying at the same hotel. We shared breakfast.
"Tom, what's your policy on beggars?"
Tom was a very experienced relief programmer, with an air about him that everything he is about to say is worth listening to. It usually is. He looked at me. He looked away and took in a heavy, thoughtful breath. He paused.
"I give to beggars..."
He exhaled heavily. A sigh.
"...when I feel like it."
That was it.
Yet this was liberating. It clicked. It set me free from my premeditated response to every single beggar, yet without demanding that I respond equally to everyone who asks of me on the street.
Perhaps my instincts are not be good enough to weigh up whether the need of every beggar is genuine, but more than anything else, Tom's advice meant I could open my heart to a fellow human being without resorting to prefabricated ideas to shut them out of my life.
We have a lot of those kinds of scripts in our heads. We can sometimes dismiss the poor or asylum seekers or the indigenous or people of different political views with ease. Every time I dismantle one of my own dismissals, I discover more human beings -- and in the process rediscover a little more of my own humanity.