What the Left Hand Knows

“But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”    Matt. 6:3

There’s a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will come.  I met such a teacher recently.  Her name was Jane.

Walking through the hallway at a local strip mall, I noticed a person hunched in a corner, surrounded by plastic bags of belongings, tentatively trimming her hair.

I ran my not-so-exotic errand–exchanging printer toner at Office Max.  I thought about her.  Actually, I thought about “that person in the hallway”; I hadn’t looked closely enough on the way in to tell if I’d seen a man or a woman.

I thought about what I “should” do.  I had cash on hand–one twenty dollar bill, my week’s “allowance”, and it was only Tuesday.  I thought about getting the bill changed, but since I made my purchase with a debit card, the cash drawer never opened.  I pulled the twenty out of my wallet, and stuffed it in my jeans’ pocket to be easy to get to, “just in case.”

As I started back down the hallway, I felt nervous.  Stopping to talk to strangers is a cultural taboo on a par with facing backwards on an elevator.  Our usual social mechanism is to pretend we don’t see them, these people whose very presence makes us feel uncomfortable.  We usually walk on by, averting our eyes.  Besides the social awkwardness factor, there was the safety factor.  What if this person was mentally ill?  That’s not usually a big showstopper for me, but the hallway was deserted, and I had seen a pair of scissors in use on my way in.

I walked slowly closer, looking more carefully to determine if I felt safe enough to stop for a conversation.  This time, the anonymous “person” took on a more individual appearance.  I saw a woman, probably in her late sixties (though weathered lives often age one prematurely).  She had a pale complexion, was wearing a thin sweater, and had neatly trimmed bangs.

I approached and said “good morning”.  She put her glasses on to get a better look at me.  I introduced myself and asked her if she was ok.  She said she was fine.  I asked her name. “Jane”, she told me. “That was my grandmother’s name”, I replied.  She brightened up a bit.  I asked her where she was from and learned a little about her family.  I wondered if she were homeless–what kind of person trims her hair while sitting in a corner on the floor of a mall, unless she has no alternative?

Thinking about the twenty dollars in my pocket, I asked Jane again if she was doing all right, and if she needed anything.  She said she was fine, had just been dropped off by transit and was waiting there awhile.  “Okay” I replied, “I just wanted to make sure you were ok and wish you a nice day.”

As I took my leave and walked outside, the whisper inside my head told me I “should” go back and give her the money anyway.  The whisper that sounds like my own voice.  The one that sometimes prompts me to be my best self, and sometimes holds me back.  Like the proverbial imp on one shoulder and cherub on the other, these whispers always sound the same, but I am learning to be discerning about the messages.  It’s my way of “testing the spirits”.

I struggled with what to do.  I struggled with choices and justice and morality, with personal discomfort and embarrassment.  I struggled with calling myself a Christian and what that might mean specifically in this context.  Would it mean giving away all my money for the week to someone who looked like she needed it more than I did?  Or would it mean contributing to someone’s dignity by taking her word for it that she  doesn’t need anything, doesn’t’ need me to fix what’s not broken, just because it looks broken to me?

I think about Jesus, and about the now trite phrase: “What would Jesus do?” We don’t get to know the answer to that question, but we do have many of his stories to reflect on.  Perhaps we can truthfully ask–what MIGHT Jesus do in a similar situation?  What might I be called to do?

I think about Jesus’ approach, how he met people where they were, and asked their story, how he often asked people to participate in their own healing, or ask for what they needed.  I ask myself some hard questions about my own motives.  Am I truly being present and available to help a woman who really needs something, or am I trying to feel good about myself, part of the “white savior industrial complex?”  I remember part of the Hippocratic oath, the one that doctors take before beginning their practice: “First, do no harm.”  I decide not to go back in.

Today’s teacher has left me with more questions than answers, but the questions are worth asking.  And the left hand has learned this–that the right hand’s habit of handing out charity isn’t the only way to do God’s work in the world.

Looking people in the eye and asking “how are you?”, taking time to listen with the heart and wish them a nice day–sometimes, that’s the greater gift.

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