Delving into the moral ambiguity of caring for the stranger as I walk the streets of New Delhi


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New Delhi and its people are full of contrasts. The menaces of greed and violence, the degradation of people and land, the juxtaposition of natural beauty and man-made horror and, finally, the sublime joy of human love, sacrifice and loyalty are always, everywhere, on full display. The world seems to shed all shyness here and display every possible permutation of beauty and sadness on these old, old streets.

Charity Spring is about caring for our world and helping those who care. I noticed something disturbing within myself today. Giving is its own reward, but when is giving harmful? Am I one to judge? How can I discern who are the deserving poor and who among us are not being honest about their capacity to care for themselves? And then there is the universal and time-worn dilemma of whether to give money to an addict who really does need nourishment and acts of human kindness to help keep him or her tethered to the world of the living, but who you are quite certain will spend the money on the addiction?

Several days ago, a list of America’s Worst Charities was published. It was the result of a yearlong collaboration between the Tampa Bay Times and the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, the nation’s largest and longest serving nonprofit newsroom dedicated to watchdog journalism. CNN joined the partnership in March 2013.

Such a damning assessment of fake charities exploiting the goodness of donors wanting to do the right thing. Horrendous findings. Many hundreds of millions of dollars raised from a giving public thinking they were really giving to the brand name charities that the corrupt ones named themselves after.

While I was walking towards the metro station in Old Delhi recently, I saw this man. He seemed to me like he was a healthy man, sitting comfortably on the path that lead to the subway with hands folded and eyes closed. He didn’t say a word. He was just sitting there, but with what seemed to be an imitation of pain on his face. Now I say imitation because from the direction I was walking he caught my eye early and it was a lengthy walk before I reached the place where he sat. I noticed that he squinted his eyes to steal looks at the passers-by, though he seemed want to to appear to be blind. Some kind people were dropping coins in the plate just strategically placed before him.

India is a rather interesting place to live and New Delhi tops the list of cities I’ve seen. The contrasting shades of life are so painful that you almost cry — and sometimes do. While you see people flying past in a Porsche, you also see some people literally dying in the streets from hunger and exposure.

Our society thankfully has created many shelter houses and free food distribution systems. In some ways this support system, as needed as it is, both elevates and demotes people who are destitute. Beyond the minimum sustenance required for survival, what is there to aspire to, to hope for?

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Mother Teresa once said, and I think it has something important to say to what disturbs me here, that being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. Elsewhere she wrote or said, “Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”  Is it for me to judge?

What am I to think or do about individuals and charities that at least seem to be exploiting the goodness of others? Give blindly or use deceit as an excuse not to care — not to see?

Whether or not that man I saw in the subway was truly blind and destitute, is there ever enough cause to stop us from caring, whether or not we are being deceived? Is caring its own reward?

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8 thoughts on “Delving into the moral ambiguity of caring for the stranger as I walk the streets of New Delhi

  1. I know that I -and I suspect many others- have fought that same internal battle that you describe so well in your post regarding whether the ones we help are truly deserving of being helped, or are they taking advantage of the compassion of others. Most often I try not to fight it any more, because I can finally admit that I can’t judge, and as a Christian, I have to accept that as the truth, only God can judge because only God can really know another’s heart. So when God judges my heart, I don’t want Him seeing that I was making excuses to fight the urge that His Spirit put there for me to be charitable. If the object of my charity is deceiving me, then that is just something else that God will have to judge. But as long as it is within my means to do so, I will try and honor the urge to help another whenever I can. Thanks for the great post that gave me so much cause to stop and think. Kudos.

    • Thank you. It is rather difficult to live in a country like India because it brings you face to face with such issues more often than you would like to encounter. It is always a moral dilemna but like you rightly said, it can’t stop us from being human, so we do give out money.

  2. Deception of this type happens everywhere. I suspect. Here in England, it has even become an organised crime in some areas with groups of beggars all working for a someone. I write as an English tourist who loves visiting India, and prone to a particular dilemma. The value of our respective currencies means that what little I might give may be a days/ weeks total for a poor beggar, and if being seen giving it, have been surrounded by other beggars. That’s life – if only we could help everyone and not count the cost.

  3. Here’s a further challenge for you (which might answer some of your dilemma here) – Don’t give to charities but WORK for charities.

    By that I don’t mean we all have to give up our day jobs. What I mean is that instead of throwing out money at charities, hoping that they aren’t going to turn out to be a big con but at the same time patting ourselves on the back for ‘caring for other’ before we turn away and forget about the needy; instead we get involved with the work personally – volunteer to help out at weekends at shelters and so on – so that we know what the charity is about and can both give money AND time to others.

    For my case, I raise money for LAMB – where I lived and worked in Bangladesh for six years – because I know it does a fantastic job among the poorest in Bangladesh and I have a relationship with the people there and the work they do. This charity is my primary focus because I know it well. I don’t throw pennies at the beggar and hope he won’t die choking the alcohol I just effectively bought for him – if I can even be bothered to worry about him that long! Instead I give it where I know it will save lives – including beggars – and make a real difference to people who need it. I would love it if everyone did that – would a peaceful world we’d know!

    • Ken:

      I know exactly what you mean. I have worked for many nonprofits and I am still working for some. Nothing gives yo greater satisfaction than this. It is always a moral dilemna when it comes to giving out money. But our time? We can give that out at our own will with 100% commitment and money thus follows.

      I am so glad to hear about your life’s experience as well. Thank you 🙂

      • It’s always a pleasure to leave a comment on your posts Tanushree and you’re someone who clearly has a heart for people – something I’ve taken a lifetime to develop I think and I’m still not very good at it! I think you’re a shining example to others and I’m proud to be associated with you even if it just through commenting on your posts! Bless you.

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