Helping Hands and Helping “Harriet Tubmans”

On Monday I received a text from my Team Leader here in Brazil:

“When in doubt, be generous. Practice observing and acting on every generous impulse you have. What happens? How do you feel?”

It was like a big yellow balloon popped in my head (why was it yellow? Heck if I know). Why don’t I act on every generous impulse I have? Most of the time it causes me absolutely no extra stress.

*I want to add here that there is a definite exception. The bus doesn’t count. I could totally get up out of my seat on the bus to someone who looks weaker or more tired than me, but there is some sanctity in the first-come-first-served rule when it comes to buses. I’m usually riding for the full thirty-minute route too, for multiple buses. I am not feeling standing for that long, and my feet won’t be feeling anything either, balancing for hours on a jarring bus. You too, elderly, you don’t even have to pay the fare most of the time— Just kidding. I was not raised by wolves, unlike the monsters who raised my city’s bus fare to R$3.90. Come on.*


Anyway, it was a weird thought process. It was like I had been given license to do the things my mind had been wanting to do but was unwilling to go through with. I could finally part with my extra R$5 or go out of my way to help the woman who dropped some papers on the other side of the street. Why on earth wasn’t I doing that before?

I have been thinking a lot about why that is and have come to believe that there are two kinds of generosity in my mind:

  • Helping Hand
  • Helping Dollar

In the case of Helping Hand situations, a person offers their physical abilities to another human. What stops me is the fear of embarrassing myself in the process of helping, which is ridiculous.

When it comes to Helping Dollar, things get a bit more complicated. To give money to every single person who asks for it on a street is a very difficult thing sometimes. Giving change feels almost insulting, like giving a waitress her tip in only change at a restaurant. Parting with R$2 is hardly ever a problem, but the issue of fairness suddenly comes into play. When I visited São Paulo a few days ago, the number of homeless on the streets was shocking. If I were to give R$2 to every person who asked me for whatever I could give, my wallet would dry out faster than Donald Trump’s chill at the keyboard of his Twitter account after an accusation toward Vladimir Putin.

To this end, if we are unable to help all who ask for it, who are we to pick and choose who gets to eat a warm meal on a certain day? Who is to say that our choice will be using the money for what they say they will?

I saw a lot of people just ignoring these beggars. I was no different, and I hadn’t been taught any differently. I don’t know if it is in anyone’s best interest to give my fellow humans the benefit of the doubt, but I wish I could. After I read the book Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor by Dr. Jim J. O’Connell, my perception of our homeless population changed dramatically. I was appalled by how ignored this part of society is. They are a part of us that we give up on more and more as time goes on. Despite knowing that after finishing the novel, I ignored the homeless last week when I went to the third biggest city in the world.

I am not yet sure how to help. Do I lend a helping hand or a helping dollar? I hope that during the course of my life I can find some kind of answer to that question. As far as the rest of the idea of generosity goes, I like acting on every urge that I have. I gave my bus fare to a man doing a color run yesterday and helped a Uruguayan man decide on his next destination, despite the fact that we didn’t share a language in common. I have high hopes for the continuance of this impulsive generosity. We can all agree that it’s good for the soul.