by David Sanders
The box of Russell Stover assorted fine chocolates was so large it was impossible for it go unnoticed on the supermarket shelf. I took special note of it because I had been given a box of Russell Stover candies as a gift the day before. The man who handed it to me, I will call him Russell to protect his privacy, stands on a corner I drive by with a sign that says, “Need Work.” Over the years, when traffic permits, I give Russell money or if I have something to eat, I share that with him.
In our Human Narrative class, we watch a video clip from David Eagleman’s series The Brain in which he describes a series of experiments that highlight why we might turn away from people who are homeless or “panhandling” for money. There is an empathy center in our brains that registers feelings for those people in our in-group. People that we don’t feel comfortable around do not elicit neurological compassion. We then ignore them, or worse, dehumanize them.
I realized that even though I had a “relationship” with the man on the corner with the sign, I did not know anything about him, let alone his name. I decided that the next time I could stop, I would give him some money and would ask him for his name. He surprised me by reciprocating and asking for my name. We shook hands. Russell was no longer this anonymous man looking for money.
Over the next two years Russell has seen me in my car with our daughters. We have had brief (traffic light changing) conversations about his health. We have wished each other well. He wishes me and my family well. I don’t always give Russell money or food, but, if traffic permits, I always say hello. Two weeks ago, on a Monday morning, as I entered the right lane, my intention was to say hello. Russell, upon seeing me, yelled out, “wait a minute.” He ran back to the grass beyond the sidewalk and came back to my car with a box of Russell Stover chocolates. Handing it to me through the open window he smiled and said to me: “Happy Hanukkah, Dave.”
I was dumbfounded and began to cry. Here was this man on the street who not only wanted to receive, he wanted to give. More so than the gift of chocolate, I was touched deeply by his having noticed I was Jewish and his sensitivity to my culture. Others may see me wearing a yarmulke and still wish me Merry Christmas, but not Russell.
Maimonedes, the medieval Jewish philosopher suggested ascending levels of charity. The next to highest level of giving charity is giving anonymously. The highest level of charity is giving in a way that the “poor” person feels empowered—not a handout but a hand-up.
Learning from my experience with Russell I would suggest adding to Maimonides levels two other factors that relate to human dignity:
Giving anonymously reflects giving for giving sake. The person is not seeking recognition or something in return. Can we add: When giving, get to know the person you are giving to. Don’t let them remain anonymous. Know them by name and know their story. I will now get out of my car to have a more in-depth conversation with Russell.
However empowering a hand-up is, it is also empowering to see the receiver as a giver; to know that they have gifts to give. You may not be the recipient of an unexpected generosity, the person who is asking for money may be paying your kindness forward. They may also be far more capable than your assumptions about them. I will now ask Russell what work he can do.
Best holiday wishes to you all and to Russell who I will remember to call by his (actual) name and share this blog with him.