We’ve almost all experienced being at a stoplight and seeing someone with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” Some of us extend a financial hand, while some feel that uncomfortable moment during which we try to avoid eye contact. Many of us have compassion while simultaneously judging. We judge because we can’t imagine why someone would resort to ‘handouts’ in life when this is the land of ‘freedom and opportunity.’ How can someone possibly be so down that they resort to ‘working for food’? Others may judge because they’ve heard statistics that ‘these people’ asking for money actually make a decent chunk of change. Even others judge because they don’t like the idea that someone is going to take their money and use it to buy booze. No matter the response, the fact is that we don’t know that person’s story and so we are forced to accept the situation. Although I’m not free from judgment, I try to take a neutral approach. After traveling abroad for so many years in less-than-fortunate countries, I realize it’s good to have a healthy balance of compassion and willingness to help, even if it’s not the person at the stoplight. Traveling has given me that sense of willingness to help when I can, and not feel guilty when I don’t.
I spent six months WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunity for Organic Farming) last year, which was actually not much different from working for food, except that I also got housing and knowledge about growing food. When I told people what I was doing, I was confronted with amazement, jealousy and enthusiasm. “You are stepping out of the box to do what you love. I wish I could do that but I’m stuck at my job.” Is what I did that different from what those at stoplights are doing? We both will work for food. I wonder though, is someone with a work for food sign actually willing to do work? I wonder how many of us would take them up on their offer. Are we willing to pick someone up, take them home, give them a task, feed them, and then take them back? I’d be willing to bet that if confronted with the option, most of us would choose to hand out $20 rather than take someone in and actually give them food for work. And if we give them money, how many times do we hear people say that they’ll probably just buy booze. We want to know that the money will be used for something important, as if we know what’s best for them. I mean, maybe they just had a Grand Slam at Denny’s; who knows. I always crack up at this because if we give money as a gift for a birthday or wedding, we don’t wonder if they are going to buy a forty-ouncer with it. We assume the person has enough sense (because we know them) to use it for something important, but how do we know we really know, and more importantly, why do we care? It’s a gift and a gift is no longer ours once it is given. So I wonder if we knew the person working for food if we would act differently.
What if you saw me at a stoplight with a sign that said, “Will work for food”? Would you think it odd that I was soliciting at a stop sign instead of getting a job? If you gave me $20 would you expect me to use it for food? Those that didn’t know me would go through the same judgment as when we see a stranger. They don’t know my story. They don’t know where I’m from or why I’m there but I have one and I have reasons that make sense to me. But if you knew me, you might not jump to judge. You know that I would do the work, but what if I kept soliciting at the stoplight year after year? Would you then start to judge me? I guess it ultimately becomes a matter of what our society tells us is acceptable, appropriate, right, or wrong instead of letting us decide for ourselves. If I was making a documentary, hanging out with a will work for food sign it might be cool, but if I did it to make a living, I might get judged. We can’t know everyone’s story but we can certainly write our own. Next time you decide to hand out money, detach yourself from it. Feel compassion without being uncomfortable; realize that if you can’t help now, you can help later. Be thankful for where you are in life and maybe next time you see a work for food sign, you will examine your judgments because, after all, aren’t we all ‘working for food?”