Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Some time ago I read an article by someone who had, one year, been a volunteer delivering Christmas hampers to the poor, the old and the needy. It was a light-hearted piece, and the hearts of the writer and his fellow volunteers were clearly in the right place. They set out, a few days before Christmas, wanting to spread cheer to those who, they felt, were going to be short of it. How they selected recipients was not revealed. Enough to say that they knocked on doors, and presented hampers with beaming smiles and a "merry Christmas!"  They were met with a variety of reactions that the writer of the article found puzzling. 

Some people were taken aback but accepted the goods. These were usually women with young children trying to manage on their own in difficult circumstances. But many of the others, but most especially the older ones, were  more inclined to react with a more or less civil "no thank you" to an angry "how dare you!" before slamming the door.

It made me ponder the problem of people – old, poor, needy, disadvantaged, you-name-it – who live in uncomfortable circumstances and may, or may not, need help. Other people feel a need to provide that help. But kindness can be embarrassing. Help can seem like interference. Charity can be taken for condescension, and is acceptable only if it involves worthy causes in broad terms rather than people directly: world hunger, cystic fibrosis or saving the planet. 

On the surface it seems simple enough. Here are some people who don't have enough to eat, here are others who are sick and need help, and here are still others who are cold or lonely. Our hearts bleed. What can we do? Well, lots of things. But the real question is, what should we do?

We can leave it to the government. There – done.  But governments are clumsy giants, unable to operate with finesse. Instead there are armies of bureaucrats who do their best but must stick to the rules and not be influenced by feelings. They do not tramp the streets with hampers looking for anyone who might need one. But welfare charities do, apparently. I am uncomfortable with dishing out largesse to people who haven't asked for it and may be embarrassed, humiliated, hurt or angry by the gesture. A Christmas hamper, however generous and well-meant, is no substitute for a chat, a cup of tea or a stiff gin and tonic with an actual friend.

The writer of the article said that some of those people were eventually persuaded to accept what was kindly meant. I suspect that the recipients had more delicacy than the givers, and graciously allowed them to do the good that they clearly wished to do.

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