Helping others has huge warm and fuzzy dividends. You can get all philosophical about whether altruism is just a form of selfishness, but I think fruits are more important than intent. Wanting to help isn't enough. We need to get a little philosophical because there are lots of issues in the world. Peter Singer, author of 'Practical Ethics', 'The Life You Can Save' and now 'The Most Good You Can Do' has spent his life on these types of questions.
I struggle with begging on the street, or homelessness. It becomes conspicuous when you are in incredibly awesome places and there are still people who are down and out. I mean, this is Yellow Scotland, they have each others backs. And you don't get much more awesome than Edinburgh. The thing is some problems are tough to solve. You can't just throw money, effort or time at the issue. We have conflicting ideals. We want to help people, but we also believe in liberty. You can't help someone who doesn't want help. Then you have to know whether your help will help? Then you have to ask whether you understand the real issues?
Yesterday I came across two examples. The first was earlier in the day. Being Scotland, it couldn't decide if it wanted to rain or not. The sun would be out and there would still be a free version of those fancy mist dispensers at clubs. Then it would be cold. Then it wouldn't be. Then the rain would come down harder. Then it would stop. In amongst this indecision, there was a man sitting in the bushes in the park by Waverly Station. Literally in the bushes. Like a Yogi hiding from the world, he would sit cross legged and still for a while. But then the calm meditative exterior would be exposed by the drunken water buffalo. That experience we have when overtired or overwatered and your head slowly sinks forward then quickly jolts back. What what. Then you resume your absence from the world. This Buffalo Yogi wasn't asking for help. He was just melting away.
In the evening, a really bedraggled chap wearing all black approached. He really looked like he had had it tough. He had utter desperation in his drunken eyes. He told the story of needing a pound to get home on the bus. My reaction leaves me feeling very uncomfortable. I want to feel pity, and I do. I have a strong preference for thinking of myself as trying my best to be decent. He needed help. But I did not know where that pound would go, and if I were to give it, I would rather give it to someone to help the Buffalo Yogi. Even then, I come from a country where 'the quality of beggar' is much higher on average. Saying this makes me feel uncomfortable, but in South Africa you get doctors and engineers begging and guarding cars. We still have the down and out, but they are swamped by scarily competent people. In the wealthier places I have been or visited, you still get begging but they normally seem to be people who are facing mental health or substance issues. In South Africa there are plenty of people who choose to beg in a country, supposed to be refounded on tolerance, struggling with its own xenophobic issues. They often choose this because the grass is greener. Even if there are just a few blades of it pushing through bits of broken rock and glass. By 2008, the wars in the Congo had been estimated to have killed more than 5.4 million people and displaced more.
The conflict in my head when being asked for that pound is messy. Condescension. 'You are just going to use this to descend further.' Guilt. 'I am having a very pleasant evening, why did I deserve this and him that?' Incompetence. 'I have absolutely no way to know what the best thing to do in this situation is'. Empathy. 'There but for... goes me'. Annoyance. 'Why do you have to kill my joy, I really didn't want to have my happy Mojo interrupted.' Defensiveness. 'Is this guy going to get aggressive if I don't comply, he doesn't look like he is going anywhere till I do?' Anger. 'Dude, pull yourself together, you live in Scotland. Scotland is ridiculously amazing. I don't accept that there isn't someone here who has tried to help you.'
I don't know which countries deal with this stuff well. I know Social Work is hard, unforgiving and often unpleasant. Even people who are keen to help don't like getting involved with the very dirty work. We like helping people who want to help themselves. People who just need a hand or someone to walk with. We like singing and dancing together and getting photos of us with the ridiculously grateful people we have helped. When responses become anti-social or uncomfortable and the correct action unclear, most of us want to check out. Me included. Most of all, I am glad there are some people who do commit themselves to helping these guys. To dealing with the tough emotional responses on a daily basis.