Wednesday Words: On Being Deserving

de·serv·ing (dəˈzərviNG)

1. worthy of being treated in a particular way, typically of being given assistance.
“the deserving poor”
synonyms: worthy, meritorious, commendable, praiseworthy, admirable, estimable, creditable; respectable, decent, honorable, righteous

“the deserving workers”
meriting, warranting, justifying, suitable for, worthy of
“a lapse deserving punishment”

Last week, I bought a man a burrito.  I actually bought him two burritos, because once I told him I was willing to buy him dinner, he asked for an extra burrito.

I was with the kids getting dinner, feeling hectic and a bit stressed because I was trying to get us out-of-town for another trip.  The man, whom I’ll call Joe, came up and knocked on the window.  It was raining and I couldn’t understand what he was saying.  I must have looked irritated or unwelcoming, because when I motioned that I couldn’t understand, he walked off.

Once I got us out of the car, I saw him and realized that of course, he was asking for change or food.  I don’t help every stranger who asks, but… There I was, about to travel to see family (a luxury), sitting in my minivan (luxury), with my three well-fed kids (arguably luxury), while he was hungry and wandering the parking lot asking for help.

Then I thought, how could I possibly walk away from this man while my kids watched?  What kind of lesson is that?  No, I can’t buy a meal for every person in need, but at that moment, it seemed like the only reasonable option.  So I asked him if I could buy him a burrito, and we all went into the restaurant.

The whole interaction ended up making me feel very sad.  For all of us.

First, was that Joe clearly felt the need to thank me to the point of grovelling.  I suppose it would not have felt good if he did not at least do a minimum social nicety by saying thanks.  Still, it occurred to me that all he was doing was trying to survive and acquire a very basic need: food.  He seemed to think I’d refuse to help him without this outlandish show of gratitude.

The man also repeatedly assured me that he was not lazy, that he couldn’t find work (he was an elderly, disabled veteran), and that he would pay my act of charity forward when he could.  In other words, he was trying to tell me that he was deserving of help.

I had to wonder, however, where this logic led.  Someone who is not willing or able to work at a traditional job or who does not exhibit a certain kind of behavior doesn’t deserve to starve on the streets, do they?  He certainly was deserving of help.  He was a living, breathing human being.  Shouldn’t that have been enough?

The next thing that happened was that the burrito place employees decided that I was to be applauded for giving the man a meal. I hated that they did it so loudly in front of him, as if he weren’t even there.  I could see it hurt his dignity, and yet he stayed quiet.  Not only that, but one young woman was clearly appalled that Joe had the nerve to ask for two burritos.  I was not offended, so why should she be?  It seemed reasonable to me, that if Joe didn’t know when his next meal might come, he might ask for two burritos.  After having chatted with him, I felt fairly confident that if I had said no, then he would have simply accepted the one burrito and moved on.

If he hadn’t?  What if he had been very angry with me, or rude?  Well, I’d have understood that as well, and known that his anger didn’t actually have much to do with me, but probably frustration and hopelessness that came from being in his situation.  Yet, the burrito shop employee seemed to think that Joe was being uppity for simply asking for more.  $8 instead of $4.  

When I read some opinions about social welfare and entitlement programs, I wince at the blanket assumptions that anyone who needs assistance must be morally flawed in some way.  People are described as lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, or worse.  I talked to Joe for at least fifteen minutes while we waited for our food.  He was a kind, soft-spoken man.  He looked rough around the edges, sure, but that was from being poor.  He was a disabled veteran who was slowly being pushed into poverty; he couldn’t find enough work to pull him completely out his situation, yet doing some work would mean he was ineligible for whatever help he did receive. He couldn’t keep up on disability alone and would soon be without a roof over his head.  I know some people would doubt that he was telling the truth, yet I had no reason to disbelieve him; I know that his is a common story in this country.

I’m not saying that the answer to poverty is to buy everyone a burrito.  Still, we all need help sometimes; some more than others.  I really don’t think that one’s moral character or past behavior should be a prerequisite for having basic needs met.  If our aim is to improve our collective lives, that means improving all of our lives, right?  To me this goes beyond the question of deserving, and more about how we care for each other as fellow human beings.  If deserving is worthiness, I think we are all worthy of having our basic needs met.

Joe could have been the most obnoxious, rude, vindictive person on the face of the earth, and I still don’t think he deserved to be hungry or homeless.  He wasn’t any of those things, but I’m thinking that it shouldn’t have mattered anyways.  He was just one guy, trying to make it to tomorrow.

12 Comments on “Wednesday Words: On Being Deserving”

  1. Diane says:

    You know I’m a woman of few words. I just want to say that I love your heart and I love ya friend!

  2. ajummama says:

    I have been consumed by the word “deserve” and have been meaning to write about it but it got too intense and too angst-y. That word is SUCH a trigger for me, girl! I was cringing when I read about the employees applauding you right in front of him! I felt so uncomfy. and the gushing gratitude he was showing you. i mean, better than acting entitled to the burrito(s) but hurts my heart. i had a similar experience when I was going over wedding planning books in manhattan at a Borders while a homeless mama and her daughter were begging right outside the window. i felt so uncomfy about our divergent paths in life that i just had to pop out of the damn Borders and do something. “talk” soon. glad to know you!

    • jisun says:

      Yeah, there’s no “right” way to be, I suppose, since anyone being that down and out is just a crappy situation, period. I just have such a hard time with the balance, because in order to live in today’s world, it is almost like we have to get desensitized to a degree, and that just seems so wrong. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while, I don’t really have any answers…

  3. Very well said. I also wonder who gets to decide if someone is deserving? What makes us think we are any better than the next person? I like the quote – Judging someone doesn’t define who they are – it defines who you are…..

  4. Lisa says:

    I love this post. I have such issues with how we decide who “deserves” what.

    I also bought food for a homeless man not long ago, and it also left me feeling sad, but for a different reason – that I felt so powerless, that my buying him some food really did so very little to change things.

    We’ll never be able to turn the tides of poverty and homelessness until we can get away from this whole “deserving” mindset.

  5. TUC says:

    Last time I was in NYC, my husband and I went out of our hotel one morning in search of a Starbuck’s to get me a latte. On the way we passed a man “sleeping” under some rags and a large piece of cardboard. We brought him back a nice hot breakfast and some juice, but really I wanted to ask him how it was that he was living there in that spot, yet I did not want to pry or make him feel like he owed me his story. I have a hard time wrapping my head around homeless people, how we can all just let that happen… especially when there are $ and services dedicated to those who need it. But somehow people slip through the cracks and end up sleeping in the (cold wet) streets. The system needs fixing.

  6. Choosing says:

    You are so right – and who are we to judge what a person “deserves” anyway?

  7. Lori says:

    I’m from small town northern Ontario, Canada. When I grew up and moved to the city of Toronto and saw my first homeless person sleeping on the ground in the financial district, I called 911 and couldn’t understand the apathy of the response people. I would like to pinpoint the time when we collectively saw people in need as less than an emergency but it has happened.

  8. Andie says:

    You said it right, we can’t buy everyone a burrito who needs one (or two), but we can in those rare moments of opportunity, spread a little love–especially to the gut! When I lived in NY I didn’t know how to handle the homeless until one day I remembered Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves. I figured I didn’t need to worry about all the homeless people I encountered on my many treks to the buses and subways, but I could look upon the ones on my regular routes as my neighbors. So I’d often share my lunch or dinner with the ones I saw regularly; purposely packing a second sandwich or leftovers for a delivery. Deserving or not, that point is moot. In that moment, Joe was your neighbor and you did what any good neighbor would do by loving him the way you’d want to be loved if you were walking in his shoes.

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