Out in the south Salem (Oregon) suburbs, there aren't many people asking passers-by for money. But once in a while I see somebody with a cardboard sign standing on the sidewalk at the junction of Liberty and Commercial.
He or she is easy to ignore if I stare straight ahead until the light changes.I try to avoid reading what the sign says. It might be "disabled veteran -- need help." Something like that. I figure it's probably a con job.
Today, though, there's wasn't any avoiding possible. I was starting to get on my Burgman 650 scooter after shopping at the south Salem Fred Meyer store. A woman's voice startled me.
"Hi. Can you spare some gas money? My tank is almost empty and I'm trying to get to Dayton." (Or maybe she said "Stayton.")
I put down my helmet and looked at her. She was twenty-something. Short. Normal looking. Brown hair. Glasses. I didn't say anything back to her for just five seconds or so.
A lot went on in my head during that time, though.
I felt like I was on the edge of a moral continental divide. Almost evenly balanced. All it would take was a little mental leaning one way or the other, and I'd have made a decision that spoke volumes in just a word or two.
My 61 year-old psyche flew back in time to when I was her age. I was frequently broke, needing to scrape together spare change to buy gas (in those old days it cost 20 or 30 cents a gallon, I recall).
When I went to Europe for the second semester of my sophomore year in college, a guy and I ended up in Israel with just enough money to buy two tickets on a boat to Italy. We stole bread from the dining room and slept on the deck. My friend tried to sell his watch when we landed at Brindisi so we could get to Rome.
So I empathized with the woman. I couldn't imagine that someone like her would try to fleece people in the Fred Meyer parking lot. And yet...
It was possible.
I tried to imagine what was going through her head as she waited for me to speak. Was it "Man, I hope this guy falls for the girl out of gas trick"? Or, "please, I don't know what I'm going to do if I can't buy some gas." Being perched on the moral divide, I couldn't decide which was more likely.
My mouth made up my mind for me. I heard myself saying, "Sure. I can give you a couple of bucks."
I took my wallet from a scooter compartment. Found two dollar bills. Handed them to her. She said "thanks." Then, "You've got a nice ride." I said, "Yes, it's a lot of fun." She walked away.
Riding off, I realized that two bucks doesn't buy much gas these days. I hoped she had a high mileage car. (Dayton is about 24 miles away, Stayton 18 miles). I wished her luck in finding more money.
And I'll admit that I also thought, "Maybe I got taken in by a sweet young thing with an honest face and a deceptive story."
I didn't really care, though.
In those five seconds of moral pondering it became clear to me that when the choice is evenly balanced probabilistically between (1) failing to help someone truly in need, and (2) not falling for a con job, the right thing to do is reach for your wallet.
I knew that I'd feel much worse if I turned the woman down and later learned that she really was destitute and almost out of gas, than if I gave her a couple of bucks and subsequently discovered that she'd made up her story.
When in doubt, do the compassionate thing.
Which isn't to say, always give money to those who ask. In downtown Salem I usually ignore street people who ask for spare change. I feel the chances are greater that they'll spend it on wine than to buy a healthy meal.
Societally our country faces similar choices, yet on a much grander and more expensive scale. Recently Congress vociferously debated extending unemployment insurance to people who had been out of work for a long time.
Conservatives argued that doing this would encourage the unemployed to stay that way, a government check being preferable to an eight-hour workday. Progressives like me felt that it's better to err on the side of compassion, even if a few people take advantage of the unemployment insurance system.
"Can you spare some gas money?" There was a lot said in those six words. And also in my single syllable response. "Sure."
I wish our country would come up with the same answer much more often than it does.
(About five years ago I described a similar moral dilemma in "I pick up a hitchhiker.")