Jeanne Mackin is the author of several novels: The Sweet By and By (St. Martin’s Press), Dreams of Empire (Kensington Books), The Queen’s War (St. Martin’s Press), and The Frenchwoman (St. Martin’s Press). She has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in several journals and periodicals including American Letters and Commentary and SNReview and is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Norton Book of Love (W.W. Norton). She teaches creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont.
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We don’t earn our fates
The first time I saw him it was a sunny spring day and he had his wheelchair parked outside the shop where I go to buy my monthly fill of magazines and paperback mysteries. He looked to be in early middle-age, with short graying hair and strong cheekbones. He balanced a paper cup on his lap and seemed to be asleep there in the sun, on that busy street corner, but when I passed in front of him he looked up. I saw his eyes, and the confusion and pain in them, and the leg wrapped in white bandages, the foot missing. There were coins in the bottom of the cup, not coffee.
I walked a few steps past him, then paused. I dug a ten dollar bill out of my wallet, walked back, and put it in his cup. Have a nice day, I said. He smiled and thanked me. I felt better, and felt guilty about feeling better.
Charity – and what is charity but kindness from one stranger to another – is a complex issue. When I gave him the money I already knew all the arguments against my action: I was encouraging street begging, rewarding behavior that society does not want rewarded. I knew it was possible the money would not go for food. I knew he was eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, etc. But I also knew that this man had been put in my path, and that I had more, much more, than he had, and that the moment was a test of my humanity. There are so many reasons not to be generous, and only one in favor of generosity – because he was a man in need, and I had the means to help him.
I saw him often after that, and always gave him money. I watched his decline, that awful process of uncontrolled diabetes and how it literally, physically diminishes the body piece by piece, inch by inch. One day I walked out of the store and realized I hadn’t seen him in many months, and he was probably gone. My money had made no difference. Yet I was glad I had given it.
Once, when I was living in Rome, I did not give money to a street beggar. I spent my afternoons walking the ancient, beautiful streets, waiting for my husband to finish teaching his classes so that we might spend a little time together. I had a favorite section in this city, a small, fountainless piazza hidden behind a fashionable shopping area, where the cobbled street was uneven and crowded, where the buildings were exceptionally old even for this very old city, where the twentieth century seemed completely elbowed out by earlier eras. One day, during my long walk through this neighborhood, I saw a woman sleeping on the street, wrapped in the colorless, fraying rags of homelessness. Emptied bottles glistened around her. Pedestrians walked carefully around her. A few had put some coins on her shawl. I put no coins there. Those empty bottles repelled me, made me feel sanctimonious and better than she was. I walked by, cold and righteous, and she, still snoring in the noisy sleep of the alcoholic, took up residence in my imagination.
Some years after this, a good friend died of alcoholism. He did not die alone or impoverished, but his easier death was a set of accidents over which neither he nor she had any control. We don’t earn our fates. Kindness depends on our honoring of that fact. Every time I drink a little more than I should, I think of her, and what I did not give.
I now sponsor a little girl in the Philippines through one of those programs where, in exchange for a modest monthly fee, you get a photo, a letter, a sense of righteousness. In her last letter, my little girl said that some of the money I gave provided a turkey for her family, as well as her school books. I was happy they’d had a good meal, but part of me, the reasonable part, said she is one child among how many millions of hungry children. How can this possibly make a difference?
Yet it did make a difference to Lea and her family. And I have to be satisfied with that. Kindness is about the one-to-one of life, about acknowledging and honoring the individual. Kindness admits our paths have crossed, whether by chance or method doesn’t method, and we know we are connected. We owe each other. We are each other’s keeper.
Next week, an essay by Maud Casey.