When I was approached, I refused to even talk to the guy, let alone give him money. This is mostly because I used to be the kind of person who would automatically give, and I finally realized I wasn't doing anyone, especially myself, any good. Part of the reason I was an auto-giver was because I sometimes have a hard time saying no when it comes to people in need; the other part is because I just have a hard time saying no in general. It was rarely, if ever, out of a sense of service, a feeling that I would be actually helping the person, or the warm fuzzy feeling you get from helping out.
The idea of committing an act of service for the last reason--to feel good about yourself--has come up in this same conversation lately, and I think it's a compelling idea to think about. It's certainly the motive behind a lot more service than many of us would be willing to admit. When I was in high school, I had a history teacher who asked the question "Is it truly a good deed if you get something out of it? Even if it's something as small as recognition or the happiness in helping others?" My feeling on the matter then, as it is now, was that I didn't really care if it was considered a good deed or a selfish deed, as long as it was helpful. But motivation is important in service, because it has a direct correlation with how helpful the deed is.
Joey Honey told me a story about service about in which his girlfriend asked him if he was interested in ladling out soup to the homeless one night. He thought about it for a minute, and then said no.
"Why not?" his girlfriend asked him, surprised.
"Because if I were to do that, it would be mainly to tell myself that I'm doing a good deed. The sense of self-satisfaction I would get from doing that would far outweigh how much help I'm actually giving to the people I'd be serving. And now that I think about it, why the hell aren't they ladling soup out to themselves? The greatest service that a charity like that could give the homeless is to have it set up so they feed each other, not so some random suburbanite can come in and serve them and then go tell all their friends what they did."
I answered as JH did when EAS asked me if I was interested in volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, the home-building project that helps disadvantaged families. Her asking was somewhat ironic, because JH and I had brought up Habitat for Humanity specifically as an organization that people use to "do their part," and usually end up doing more harm than good. Specifically, JH mentioned that the one time he did go to a HH site he saw people, in their misguided attempts at being helpful, ruining lumber, wasting materials, and generally just messing up the project. Feeling called to serve those less fortunate does not make me a home builder.
Sometimes nominal gestures hurt more than they help, and here's why: There are situations in almost every segment of life in which help is very much needed. Not just the situations that everyone thinks of like homeless shelters, or charities, but in day-to-day life. If we make some nominal gesture--a few coins to a bum, filling soup bowls--and then dust off our hands and say we've done our part, we've committed an injustice to those who actually do need help and to ourselves.
The obvious question that comes out of this is "How can I be of most help?" If you're Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, I suppose you'd give billions of dollars. If you're a therapist, you can offer pro-bono counseling to a group that needs it. You can volunteer at your church, get a little brother or little sister, spend more time with your family, or look up your local public radio station on the Internet and find a charity that suits your skills. (KUT Austin's volunteer page is here.) Help with your brain, as well as your hands and wallet.