A few weeks ago I offered a bag lady a coupon for a free coffee at a local coffee chain. She refused. Refused! Looked at the coupon in my outstretched hand, fixed me warily, and shook her head.
“It’s for a free coffee,” I explained. Maybe she thought I was selling something. “No cost. It’s for this place.” I pointed around the room, in case her English was limited. She spoke not a word — just gave me that wary look.
You’re sitting here at the very coffee shop, I thought. You could go right up to the counter and use it now. It’s cold outside! You’re a bag lady! You must want a free hot coffee, even if you don’t drink it. Something to warm your hands on. Something good smelling. Everybody likes the smell of coffee!
“You sure?” I asked, pushing my hand a little closer. I hoped the expression on my face conveyed simple warmth.
She shook her head again.
“Okay…” I shrugged, turning and returning to my chair. She went back to staring out the window at the snowy downtown street from her corner table. I stole one last glance at her. There was the personal cart full of plastic bags stuffed with clothes and whatever else. Definitely a bag lady. I wasn’t mistaken.
So she just didn’t want my charity. What happened next surprised me:
I felt rejected!
And a horrific sentiment occurred to me: Paranoid old bat.
That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t such a charitable chap after all. I had offered the coupon — a coupon I acquired free of charge, through no effort of my own — not from a place of love, but from pride. I offered it, not because I wanted to give someone the opportunity to be cared for, but because I wanted to show off (more for my own eyes than for hers) what a resourceful and magnanimous person I was.
I laughed softly to myself, at myself. How many times have I given something, strictly out of pride? And when it was accepted, could the recipient sense, on some level, that I was really, deep down, trying to glorify myself in some way? Was the spirit of my false charity truly bankrupt, in the end? Does the recipient accept such false gifts out of gratitude — or out of fear — fear of what I’ll do if they refuse — fear of me?
The whole drama of dominance and subservience plays out in an instant on the spiritual plane. I’ve been poor. I’ve been homeless. I know what it’s like to have literally zero dollars and just a few bags to my name. If someone offers me a coffee, I take it. When you’re poor, every calorie counts. But just because I would readily accept a free coffee, doesn’t mean somebody else would. Maybe the lady was paranoid, maybe she wasn’t, but that’s beside the point, which is that my offer was a spiritual lie.
And yet I too have been the recipient of some very dishonest false charity. I know what it feels like to be made to be felt as though I am owned by my benefactor. There was a sense that I could never show enough gratitude to assuage the resentment of the so-called giver. This is why people don’t ask for help when they need it. Some people would rather die than subject themselves to the spiritual violence of other people’s dimly conscious false charity. I have been on both ends of such ugly transactions.
That woman at the coffee shop changed my whole way of thinking about charity. I had already known others who gave falsely. Intellectually I knew how the whole dysfunctional dynamic worked, top to bottom — but I had never known myself to be guilty of it. The woman might not have known she was teaching me anything, but teach me she did. Just by being herself. I was the charity case, not her.
I left that coffee shop with a smile on my face.