I live in a big city. Every day people stand on the streets begging for money. Seeing people beg upsets me. I become physically ill. It also makes me question my personal values and those imposed upon me by society.
Why does society leave these people with no alternative except begging for money? Why am I uncomfortable having any kind of interaction with them beyond that of a financial transaction? (It is a transaction. The receipt for which would include Assuagement of Purchaser’s Guilt, Purchaser’s Experience of Seller’s Gratitude, and Purchaser’s Feeling of Having Helped A Fellow Human Being.)
What prevents me from starting a conversation with this person? Would they accept a conversation as an alternative to a financial transaction? Would they use the conversation to increase the likelihood of the financial transaction occurring?
Why are we taught as children never to talk to strangers? Why is a stranger more dangerous than someone we know?1 Why do we continue to believe this as adults? Why doesn’t this rule apply when money is involved? (People begging on the street have to talk to strangers because the more people they ask the more chances they will receive money. Similarly when strangers enter a business the employees must talk with them so as to increase the likelihood of their becoming paying customers.)2
What troubles me most about this situation is the discrepancy in power. The person with the money is in a position of power over the person without the money. They get to decide whether the other person will have to interact with them or not. The customer is always right. This is because the customer has the money and you (or the business you work for) want the money. I hate this. I see abusive patrons of retail or food places lambast the people who work there. The workers believe they have to put up with it, for fear of losing their job. Why can’t the situation be one where if the patron gives the worker shit, the worker can give them shit back and tell them to leave? If the patron didn’t like the meal, they don’t have to pay for it and they are welcome to leave.
Outside of situations where it is assumed strangers will talk to you (like bars), when are we comfortable with this happening? Does it require a common experience? Walking down the street I see someone wearing a shirt from the college I attended. I can talk to them once I explain we went to the same school. If I and another passenger on the subway see something outrageous happen, we can talk about it and other such experiences.
Religious beliefs appear to have a similar effect. If a stranger shows up at a house of worship, it is assumed they are a member of the faith. They will be spoken to and invited to be a member of the local group. All of this happens based on an assumption of shared beliefs.3
Why can’t our common experience be the fact that we are human beings? We have all grown up and gone through similar experiences. We might not have experienced them together, but we both have been through those experiences before. We’ve all been through breakups.4 We’ve all been scared before. We’ve all been happy before.5
Why does seeing this person in need affect me so deeply? Am I particularly empathetic? Is it because in the past I have been in dire financial straits and have had to beg family members for money? (ie a common experience) Is it because I worry I might be in that place once again in the future?
Who benefits from the continuing distance between myself and this other person? I can’t see how either I or the other person benefit (other than financially, in which case the benefit is only temporary and one-sided).6 Who benefits from people who have something in common feeling an unbridgeable gap between them? Who benefits when people see others begging and feel that at any moment they could be in that other person’s shoes? Who benefits when we fear the other?
Stranger danger! IIRC statistics show a child is more likely to be abducted or abused by someone they know than by someone they don’t.↩
There is discomfort anytime money is involved with family or friends, though. An anecdote: I grew up playing boardgames with my friends, it was one of the main ways we spent time together. I have recently found there is a game store in my city where you can pay the employees to play board games with you. This feels very wrong to me.↩
Many religions say to welcome and take care of the stranger. I think most translate this to mean “a member of the religion you have not yet met,” not just any stranger.↩
Relationships are something most people have experienced. Yet they are one of the things they tend to be the most guarded about. Is that because they are seen as only between the person and the other member of the relationship? Thus making discussion about them with anyone else something that goes against the taboo of talking to strangers? (ie the other member of the relationship does not know the stranger, thus cannot give their permission to talk about them) That said, people will talk to friends about the relationship – people who already have experience or connection to the other party. Or they will talk to their therapist – someone they pay to talk to.↩
Maybe this is why people read. They find this other person (the author or the character) who has done or felt things like the reader has. They (at least in their minds) have this friend to talk to for a short span of time, who seems to have something in common with them.↩
The Free Hugs people seem to prove the opposite is true. When two people who have nothing in common beyond their own willingness to hug another person come together, both of their lives are improved.↩