Confronting the beggar dilemma

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BeggarWhen I was a sweet and protected young thing in 1960s Australia, beggars were the stuff of legend. As I walked sedately to my lectures, an old chap would stop me every now and then and ask me for a bob. That was my sole experience, and my father was disgusted. You know what that's all about, don't you? A bottle of metho to go with the boot polish.

I learned a hard and hasty lesson when I came to Greece to live, as beggars were everywhere. They still are, and in endless variety: the aged, especially widows, mothers with babies, amputees, the deaf and dumb, people who have been horribly burned or crippled, gypsies.

Yet to some people they are invisible: once I stood and stared as a well-padded monk and matching priest came billowing along the main street of Kalamata, totally ignoring a bent and black-clad old woman who had her hand outstretched. They ignored her, I realised, because they hadn't even seen her. I suppose that's what custom does.

But the scenes were all so raw to me that I used to walk up that same street, scattering small change in all directions, much to the disapproval of Alexander, my youngest son.

'They're all collecting rents from the blocks of flats they own in Athens.'

'You can't know that, and anyway, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. You never know, I might be out there, cap in hand, myself one day.'

At which point he and his filotimo were outraged: how could I think that any Greek son would or could allow his mother to sink so low?

Some of my friends have worked the whole difficulty out: they refuse to give money to anybody. Me, I now divide beggars into categories, mainly because it is impossible to give to everyone. And there are aggressive beggars, and passive ones: another problem.

I give to amputees, but one day an 'amputee' got up and revealed himself to have two legs: his trick was like the one actor Edward Fox pulls in The Day of the Jackal. I don't always give to the apparently able-bodied. Mothers with babies pluck at my heart strings, although a cynical friend assures me many babies are borrowed.

The aged are in my in-group, usually, and so are gypsy children, although I invariably get irritable and ask them why they are not at school. And I swim against the friend-current again, but I hear so many stories of such children being beaten if they do not bring home the required amount, whatever that might be, that my battered old heart softens once again.

Another problem is my motivation. Am I anxious to take the high moral ground? I hope not. Am I playing a game of Look at Me (and my generosity)? Again I hope not. And mostly I'm racked with guilt because I give so little and because I make choices.

I rather think my motivation is connected with my mother's voice, which I still hear, though she is long dead. There but for the Grace of God ... And that sentiment, I rather think, is yet another difficulty, and one that I prefer not to explore. At least not now.

In this season I give up, and simply listen to my mother's voice again:

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please to put a penny in the old man's hat.

And so I do. 


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website


Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, beggars, Greece, Christmas

 

 

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Hooray for you, Gillian. I have faced the same dilemna while travelling. I cannot remember the faces of those to whom I have given, but the memory of the ones I refused is permanently lodged in my memory. I too have seen the 'deformed', straighten themselves at the end of the day - yet, for my own sake, and for the love of Christ, I give. Although still, sometimes - particularly if the person frightens me or is agressive, I refuse - and then I'm sorry. Because I just do not, and cannot know, the circumstances each person lives with. This old Celtic poem rings in my ears when they hold out their hands:

I saw a stranger yestere’en.
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place.
In the name of the sacred Triune,
the stranger blessed me and my house,
my cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark said in her song,
“Often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
Often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”

pirrial clift | 14 December 2011


Thanks, Gillian. Occasionally I rationalise not giving but I think the only thing we can hang onto is that it's better to make a mistake by giving than a mistake by not giving. And "There by the grace of God..." has a great pedigree.
Joe Castley | 14 December 2011


So, to give a penny is charity but to give everything is too dangerous, eh? So, where the limit? If a tip is to be 10% of the bill, should tipping the poor to salve a conscience be 10% of what's in your wallet maybe? Or 10% of what's in your bank account? But how depleted should one allow the account to slip to? Does tipping the poor merely condone poverty by absolving the state of any communal responsibility? Why do we pay taxes? Can it just be so the wealthy can laugh about avoiding their share of them? I see the Vatican screws Italy to the tune of 3 billion Euros a year. Gosh, a lot of Italian beggars could live like Princes on that gross wealth, eh? Does Greece also give religion a free kick? Probably. The best tip to give a waiter is to 'go and join a union' so they can earn a proper wage. The best tip to give the financially halt, lame and infirm is to start a revolution. Alms-for-the-deserving-poor is all about the power and position of the giver buying personal salvation later in a mythical heaven, not about the well being on Earth now of the poverty struck. If only all the beggars everywhere sold the Big Issue, then we could all give and pretend to be interested in what they had to say too.
harry wilson | 14 December 2011


It all came back to me while reading your essay - my visit to Hong Kong. Poor, little, protected, shielded me, from a small country town, suddenly confronted by the beggars of HK. I hated it - didn't know whether to give or ignore. My fellow tourists saying 'Don't give - you'll never get rid of them' and my guts turning over (compassion? nausea? horror?). We don't have beggars where I live or in the circles I move in. It's comfortable. Perhaps that's why I don't want to travel? I want to stay in my comfort zone?
glen avard | 14 December 2011


Empathetic comments can always be found in poetry so I often quote the comment of Goldsmith when he speaks about the Village Preacher saying "His pity gave ere charity began"
Ray OP'Donoghue | 14 December 2011


An interesting topic you raise, Gillian. As an Australian travelling around Europe, I found by week-six I had become beggar weary. This was detected by the young man with sores on his face who forced his equally scabby arm stump into my face upon my arrival on a splendid snowy evening in Switzerland's affluent Basel. He hissed toxic hatred before moving on. Most lingering in my mind was the  haunting sound of Edith Piaf coming from 'somewhere' in the peak hour Paris metro. I was compelled to find the source, weaving through the tides of commuters. And then...there she was. I was taken aback, so similar she was to Edith Piaf in her final years. I saw she was uncomfortable performing and I was glad she had not spotted me.  As I dropped a few euro into her tin I was struck by the fact people still sing for their supper in Paris. I also gave to those who didn't beg. On a main street in Frankfurt, a woman with matted hair in a sleeping bag, oblivious to the world around her.  Thank you for your article, Gillian. It has caused me to reflect and I now suspect that I gave when I felt the act of giving might uplift human dignity in contrast to taking away. 
Fiona Douglas | 15 December 2011


Read your article with interest Gillian. This is always a dilemma, and no less particularly around Christmas.
John Whitehead | 15 December 2011


An interesting topic you raise, Gillian. As an Australian travelling around Europe, I found by week-six I had become beggar weary. This was detected by the young man with sores on his face who forced his equally scabby arm stump into my face upon my arrival on a splendid snowy evening in Switzerland's affluent Basel. He hissed toxic hatred before moving on. Most lingering in my mind was the  haunting sound of Edith Piaf coming from 'somewhere' in the peak hour Paris metro. I was compelled to find the source, weaving through the tides of commuters. And then...there she was. I was taken aback, so similar she was to Edith Piaf in her final years. I saw she was uncomfortable performing and I was glad she had not spotted me.  As I dropped a few euro into her tin I was struck by the fact people still sing for their supper in Paris. I also gave to those who didn't beg. On a main street in Frankfurt, a woman with matted hair in a sleeping bag, oblivious to the world around her.  Thank you for your article, Gillian. It has caused me to reflect and I now suspect that I gave when I felt the act of giving might uplift human dignity in contrast to taking away. 
Fiona Douglas | 15 December 2011


Why is an able bodied gypsy deserving, but an able bodied non-gypsy undeserving? If anything, one should go out of one's way to avoid giving to gypsies, so as to give them an incentive to engage in honest work, as should be expected of any other able bodied person.
Adrian | 16 December 2011


HARRY WILSON: Gillian in her article has had the courage to grapple honestly with a difficult human dilemma. I personally have opted out of the dilemma altogether by not giving alms at all on the streets, having been mugged on various occasions. I do buy the Big Issue now and again, but they are not begging, but providing a service/product. Mr Wilson how about you tell us how YOU contribute to humanity or what YOU do, rather than just react to what "we" should do.
AURELIUS | 16 December 2011


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