“You can get whatever you want, but it needs to be under $3.”
I was familiar with these words as my mom and dad would say them to us three kids every time we got the treat of eating out as a family at McDonalds, or even better, at Burger King. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was sure special.
We lived simply. More accurately, we lived cheaply. But I remember those 3 dollars would buy me a plain whopper and fries at BK, or 6 chicken nuggets at McDonalds (not in a happy meal… those only came with 4 nuggets, which wasn’t enough food for me, and the meal was above the $3 limit). It was always a treat.
I don’t know how old I was the first time I noticed it, but at some point I became aware of the fact that like the words of the $3 rule being spoken so faithfully to us, my mom would faithfully speak another line of words to any homeless person or person asking for change that we encountered: “I don’t give out money, but are you hungry? I’ll get you whatever you want.”
But the $3 limit was never mentioned. And she bought them food when we didn’t get to eat out, because that was still a rare treat for us. She would go in with them to the grocery store or the fast food place or the gas station and she would get them meal deals that we were never afforded the chance to try. The fact that they were superseding the $3 family rule was never mentioned to them, which I thought was odd.
Because even as a child, I was taught compassion, I was taught to care for people and to see everyone as human beings that have the same value to their lives as I do. But, while I never said anything about it, I was confused about why our family’s budget didn’t apply to others when my parents bought them food.
As an adult I look back and I see that the lesson my mom’s actions taught me was that it is good to give, even when we give more than we would normally afford ourselves. People matter more than dollars. All people.
When I was in high school, I started to buy boxes of granola bars and keep them in my car so that any time I saw someone in need, I had something to offer them. I actually intentionally bought peanut-flavored ones so that I wouldn’t be tempted to empty my own stash. (I have a peanut allergy.) But after I graduated high school, it was rarely as I was driving by that I encountered people in need. I instead met them on the streets of downtowns as I walked around with friends. Or at the beach. Or at the grocery store. And my granola bar stash wasn’t doing much good sitting in my car, so I got out of the habit.
Because I’m a hungry person, a prepared person, and I spent more than a decade babysitting regularly, I got used to always having a snack with me in my purse or back pack or pocket. (I know, that’s kind of weird, but it’s true.) What I started to find was that as I would meet people who were asking for food or money, if they were hungry I’d offer them whatever snack I had on hand. I’ve given away leftovers, a soda cup from In n Out, cliff bars, animal crackers, crackers, almonds, fruit, jerky, and baked goods.
The first time I had an opportunity to do so though, I hesitated. I was in San Francisco by myself, exploring downtown for the day. I was working in an unpaid internship and didn’t have extra money, so I had brought a lunch and a snack with me. When faced with the choice, I gave the snack away first. But then I came upon another hungry man asking for help, and I said no, and walked away, justifying that I would be hungry for the day if I gave away this, the last of my food for the whole day. As I justified it, I remembered my mom, spending more than we spent on ourselves, offering food when we couldn’t afford to eat out. And I realized what a stupid justification being hungry for the day was.
I went back and found the man and handed him my lunch and sat down with him while he ate it.
I remember that day clearly, because it was the first time I gave until I felt it. I walked around hungry that day. And it’s been a reminder to me of the power of C.S. Lewis’ challenging words: “We ought to give until it hurts.” I didn’t hurt that day, but I felt what I had given, and that was a step in the right direction for me.
The last time I was in San Diego, I was walking with two of my friends up Newport Ave in Ocean Beach looking at shops as we meandered away from the beach. I saw them then, on the other side of the street, but kept walking, window shopping, chatting with my friends.
But as we made our way back down the other side of the street, the two women were still there. I said hi briefly as we passed. They weren’t asking for anything, they didn’t have a sign, they just lived in the OB area as manly homeless folks do. My friends were up ahead chatting and walking on. I asked the women if they were hungry, and they were, so I offered them the cliff bar I’d been storing in my back pocket for a snack as we walked around the beach. “I’m sorry, this is all I have, and it’s just one. But do you want it?” I asked them. “Oh yeah! These are the BEST!” They both looked at each other and with a silent exchange one reached out for it, and then handed it to the other. “I ate earlier today. She can have it,” she said, handing it to her friend. The friend looked hesitant, and then took it and smiled.
My friends had turned and realized I had lagged behind and waited patiently as I finished chatting with the ladies. When I re-joined them we began walking again, and they know not to make a big deal of stuff like that. But my friend Lizz, who is always willing to credit me with being more intentional than I am, asked me, “I saw you grab that when we left the car. Is that why? So you could give it away?”
“No.” I said simply. Resisting the urge to take credit for something better than the truth. “I brought it because I thought I’d be hungry. I wanted a snack.”
Because people are more important than dollars. And more important than my temporarily filled belly.
I hope one day I’ll learn enough courage and discipline to give until it hurts. But for now, I’m grateful for my mom’s example of giving until we’re a little hungry. Giving, not when we have extra, but when it means someone else getting something that we wanted for ourselves. Giving until we feel it, even if it’s just a little bit.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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