In the parking lot of the building where I work, there is a man who cleans cars. I pay him a flat fee at the end of every month, as well as giving him cleaning clothes and boxes of cookies once or twice during the month. But one month he missed many days. On the first day of the next month, he came up to my car as I was parking.
When I got out of my car, I shook my head at him. I didn’t want to pay him for the next month. It wasn’t about the money but the principle. I had paid him for work he never did. He started to plead in a language I don’t understand. I shook my head again and walked away.
Ten minutes after I got to my office, there was a knock on my office door. It was the office runner whose job it is to deliver messages. As I am about to ask what he needs, I see that the car washer is standing just behind him. I realize that I will have to spend the next five minutes listening to what are probably lies and have to give the car washer his money, with little chance of him actually washing my car.
As expected, the runner pleads the case of the car washer, both of us knowing that I now have no choice. I can break off the economic relationship with the car washer, but it’s much more complicated with the runner, who I need to get documents to and from different departments.
I don’t know if the runner and car washer are friends or are from the same region of another country, if the rummer is getting a kick-back or is simply being kind, but by positioning himself in the issue, he has changed the dynamics. I have known the runner for over five years. Saying ‘no’ to him means he will be insulted and it might decrease the chances of him answering the phone when I need a document.
I bite the inside of my mouth, nod my head a few times and pay the car washer for the next month. My car is cleaned for a few days and then the cleaner disappears forever.
It’s not very much money but it’s annoying and I can’t complain about what happened. From long experience I know that either the car washer is in the hospital, has returned to his country or is goofing off and I will never know the truth. The real truth of the story is that, for some reason, the car washer needed money and I am a person with more money that he has.
There is a similar dynamic which happens at the grocery store. I have gone to the same store for years and I always tip, so sometimes one of the men who bags groceries will follow me around the store, motion me to come to the check-out counter where he is working or, if I go to another counter, come there and try to get rid of the man who is working at that counter.
Sometimes he will simply stand next to the man who is bagging my groceries. He needs money and I have more than enough money to tip two or more baggers, so he waits and stares at me. This should be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but it invokes all sorts of moral dilemmas: What do I owe another human being? How should I spend my money and what should I feel (or not feel) guilty about?
I don’t want to give money (and encourage the man to follow me around the store) but the tip is a negligible amount to me, but might a lot to the man, perhaps the difference between speaking and not speaking to his family that night. So I hand over the small change if I have it.
My moral compass has to gradually come to this point: if I have the cash, then I give to whoever bags my groceries, sanitizes the grocery cart, makes my coffee or delivers something. As for the men who sweep the streets, if there is no traffic and I have cash, I pull over and give the money.
Rather than try to figure out if the person deserves it or how much to give or make a monthly charity budget, I make the simplest calculation: do I have coins, small change or the lowest denomination bill? If yes, hand it over. If not, don’t dwell on it.
My watchwords are ‘don’t fight over small amounts’ and ‘never end the day with coins or small bills in your wallet.’
Darling, be generous, but just as importantly, find a way to be generous that allows you to not be constantly caught in dilemmas of ‘what should I do?’ Make a decision (adjust as needed) that allows you to maneuver smoothly in the world.