The masquerade of charity

I was in Serbia earlier this week and while there, had a few minutes to browse the web. I belong to a host of online sites selling old and used furniture. I can lose myself for hours in these virtual shops. One (wo)man’s trash is indeed another (wo)man’s treasure. I found a chest of drawers that I liked. It had some nice carving on the front and although it looked as if it had seen better days, it seemed in reasonable nick, from the photos, at least.

I engaged in a conversation with the owner using my friend Google Translate. It transpired that it was too big to fit in the boot of our car (I’d learned my lesson from a previous online purchase, and now check with himself before committing myself to anything). But yer man said he’d deliver. I didn’t argue the price, even if he said it was a guide price. I’m useless at that sort of stuff and he said he really needed the money as he has two small kids and no money to buy clothes or toys for them. I offered to pay for his petrol to drop them over but forgot to  mention this to ‘he who is not blessed by divine inspiration’, with the result that when yer man arrived and dropped it off, he was given just the asking price. I was in Serbia, remember?

That said, the piece is, by all accounts, a little worse for wear. At one stage it must have had a top half that is now missing; the holes into which that piece fit are a tad obvious. I’ve yet to see it, but I’m already thinking that it has the makings of yet another project (my way of dressing up buyer’s remorse). It joins a chair waiting to be reupholstered, two other chairs waiting to be painted, and two wardrobes waiting for inspiration. But I live in hope.

We’ve been back and forth since about how to pay the money promised and the conversation is getting interesting. We’re back to clothes, shoes, and toys for the two kids. What’s even more interesting though, is my reaction to it all.

I had the initial – Oh, no, please, not a con artist! – which morphed into ‘Oh, no, please, I’ve enough to be worrying about with my own bills’ – which then capsized into the seas of Catholic guilt and surfaced as ‘FFS, have a heart.’

I ran quickly through the seven works of mercy:

Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the imprisoned, visiting the sick, and burying the dead.

and while me buying clothes and toys for this chap’s kids wouldn’t tick any specific boxes, the mercy could be loosely implied.

Earlier today, I had reason to revisit  the five stages of grief:

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance

And they rang a louder bell.

When he first asked me for clothes and toys, I was in denial. I thought it was some major mistranslation and that Google had messed up. I double checked. And he wrote again, in German this time, with the same key words: kids, clothes, toys, no money. But he’s also looking to buy car (or so it says on FB).

Then I got angry. Yes, I might look as if I have pots of money because three sides of the outside of the house are freshly painted and the inside is obviously a work in progress. And yes, I’m a foreigner so I must have money. And yes, I’m a woman so I’m supposedly programmed to feel empathy for women and kids in need. But he’s also buying a car. And I don’t know him from Attila. And what if it was all a ruse to scope out the house and make off with all that furniture waiting to be fixed! And then I got angry at myself for being so distrustful and cynical.

I moved on. I started to bargain with myself. I’d already paid over the odds for the chest of drawers and I’d paid for delivery (I’ve since transferred the money). Was I now supposed to go out and buy clothes and toys for this chap’s kids? And how did I know that he wasn’t a con artist and living in the lap of relative luxury funded by soft touches like myself? Perhaps I should go visit him and see for myself. And then decide. But what would that make me – a social worker? And a skeptic. Why not just buy the damn stuff and be done with it? But if I’m taking that tone, I’m doing it unwillingly and the good deed would be tainted.

Then came the depression, and the guilt, and the realisation that maybe I’m not as good a person as I think I am if I’m even questioning ignoring his need … if it is a real need. Aghhhhhhhhhhhhh!

I’ve now reached acceptance. I’ve asked him for the kids’ sizes and ages and I plan to go shopping this weekend. Yep, he might be a con man. It might all be a scam. And I might be an idiot. And if that’s the case …. well, I have a degree in self-beratement from a previous life. so I can just dust off the certificate. But if there’s a chance that he’s genuine, and that his need is real, and that he’s so at the end of his tether that he’s had to ask a total stranger for help, then what choice do I have?

As my man Sydney said so long ago: Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

But lest there be any confusion here – I’m not doing it to be good, to be nice, to be Christian. I’m with Anthony de Mello on this one [The masquerade of charity] – this isn’t charity – it’s enlightened self-interest: he gets what he needs for his kids, and I get to feel that I’ve done something useful.


5 Responses

  1. Helping people is what you do………so no problem there……..however doesn’t Hungary have junk shops……it certainly has markets where you can see, touch and feel what you are thinking of buying and then be in a position to barter over a price face to face without having to do the social services bit. The path you are currently following will soon include the purchase of a shed to hold all the bits of junk that you don’t really need………it has taken you a long time to get a place that you clearly love, why is there now a desperate rush to fill it with stuff that you think will do………why not take longer and furnish with beautiful things that you will cherish.

    1. Oh, I am taking time. Believe me. And I’ve gotten some nice pieces online, too. There’s no desperation – it more when I see something that strikes a chord, I buy. The house won’t be as ‘designed’ as the flat – more a selection of different bits and pieces that work together well.

      1. If you haven’t already please checkout Pin Interest for ‘Kettles Yard’ Cambridge…….I would send you the book but it costs too much nowadays and I love my copy 🙂

  2. Really sorry to say this, but I think giving in to this emotional blackmail is more about you than him. He is playing you, and you know he is Mary … you didn’t cause his penury, nor are a few pairs of shoes and a few bob for a tatty dresser, or whatever gong to rescue him from it. I know it’s easy to say it — so I will! — you’ve got to sever the ties there. He’ll be back. PS: I’m glad I read this back before posting because there was a lovely Freudian there: I had written “sever the toes”!!

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