Why it’s so hard to give—and receive—charity, even during the holiday season

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Free of charge.
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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I’m sitting cross-legged on the hardwood gym floor, folding teeny pastel pants and shirts while the parents from this struggling elementary school “shop” from among the donated items. A woman touches my shoulder. “I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have girls’ 3T pants?” she asks. I smile and hand her a whole stack; after all, the clothes are free, and the little girl at her side doesn’t look like she gets new clothes very often.

“I just need two,” she says, taking two off the top and handing the pile back. “Really.” She smiles. “Save them for the people who really need them.”

I blink. Every family in this school lives below the poverty line, which means she and her little girl do, too, and the clothes are free. I start to say something, to make her take more, maybe some shoes, some mittens, how about this dress? She holds my gaze for a moment, still smiling, but with something else in her eyes that stops me. “Of course,” I say finally, trying to sound brisker, like we’re just two mamas rifling through the racks at Kohl’s. “Those will look really cute on her.”

The mother thanks me again, and she and her little girl walk away…smiling at the incredible bounty of two tiny pink pairs of pants.

These are the moments that crystallize and stay with us—returning when we are stuffing own kids’ clothes in brimming drawers, or wedging yet another ski jacket in the front hall closet. She’d been so pleased with something that I might have picked up as an afterthought, as I pushed my cart through Target on my way to buy something else. She’d been both charming and selfless, taking just what she needed and leaving the rest.

These are the moments, too, that keep us coming back—to volunteer at the clothing drive, to lend a hand at the school food drive, or collect toys for little ones who might not receive anything else.

But it is pretty easy to well up over a winsome little girl and her sweet-but-tough mama who won’t accept any more help than she has to. It is not nearly so easy to feel generous or gratified when the recipients of help don’t say their lines as written, don’t act the part we believe they should.

When I was sixteen, my church youth group volunteered to serve meals in an inner-city soup kitchen. We washed dishes and served up beans and mashed potatoes to long line of homeless men, very few of whom made eye contact or expressed more than a mumbled thanks.

Afterward, the pastor asked for our reflections. We said nothing, and then finally, one of the girls said softly, “I didn’t really like being here. I guess…” She paused, embarrassed. “I guess I wanted them to be more grateful.”

There was a dead silence—Did she really just say that? Out loud? And then I cringed, realizing that deep down, I’d been feeling the same thing.

It took a long time for it to occur to me how it might feel to BE one of the men in that line, what would it be like to accept a plateful of charity from a bunch of cheeky suburban teenagers in shiny Umbro shorts and Tretorn sneakers—kids who were clearly in town for only a day or two before heading back to their world of freshly mowed lawns, color-coordinated bedrooms, and fridges so full of groceries you could hardly close the door.

In their shoes, would I really have managed to chit-chat warmly, offer jovial thanks? Or would I have just kept my head down and kept moving, trying to get it over with?

Years later, I met a woman who worked full-time as a special education aide, making maybe $9 an hour. She was single with two kids, and struggling to make ends meet. One Christmas, as she shared her worries about affording presents for her kids that year, I suggested she consider signing up for a local nonprofit’s giveaway of holiday gifts.

To my surprise, she said no.

“Look, honey, you don’t even like asking a friend to bring your kid home from soccer if you can’t return the favor,” she said. “Do you know what it does to you, to go stand in line and say to strangers, ‘Help me—I can’t even buy presents for my own kids’?”

You want to be the one buying the presents and giving gifts to charity, not the other way around, she told me. And no matter how nice they are, you know they’re checking you over—Why are you here? Do you REALLY need help?

There’s no time to explain that you work full-time and it just doesn’t pay enough, or that your “leather” jacket is a $4 knockoff from the Salvation Army, she said. There’s no time to tell them that your nails are fancy only because your sister is in beauty school and she practices on you for free. There’s no time to point out that your cell phone has the cheapest plan on the market, and you bought it because your son has seizures and his school has to be able to reach you at work. There’s no chance to explain that your kid is clutching that Happy Meal toy not because you laugh in the face of nutrition, but because it’s his birthday and that’s the only party you can afford.

There’s no time for any of that, and so instead you stand in line, maybe keeping your eyes down, or cracking a joke to break the tension.

Sometimes what looks like sullenness is really just shame…and bravado is just shame in a big, loud hat.

There was a long silence. I’d been so full of my bright ideas and holiday zeal, it had never once occurred to me to think about the exchange from her perspective. “I’m sorry,” I said softly, lamely. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Yet a few years later, I missed the mark in a different way. I was helping at a holiday gift giveaway for families in need, and when the doors opened, several people bolted to the electronics area, where three old TVs were victoriously claimed, hoisted, and carted away within less than a minute. The volunteers started giggling, the way adults chuckle knowingly at children sprinting for cupcakes (“Wow, don’t get in their way! They’ll knock you over!”). And I’m not proud to say I chuckled along.

But here’s the thing: I sprint for the things I can’t get any other way, too. We all do. Maybe we dash across the store for that Black-Friday-discounted Xbox, or throw a few elbows to get our kid into the last slot of theater camp or advanced math. In a town a few miles from me, parents routinely camp out in tents for more than a week, in the snow, to secure a spot at a foreign-language magnet school… and you will get roasted over their campfire if you try to cut in line. I have a friend—a sweet, lovely woman, the kind of person who wouldn’t think of changing lanes without using a turn signal—who rented an entire empty apartment in another school district to establish “residency” so her child could attend their prestigious high school. We all go a little crazy for the stuff we can’t get by other means.

In this season of giving, demure thank-yous from those we’re helping understandably touch our hearts.

But perhaps the best gift we can give is a generosity of spirit—free of expectations, with enough imagination to realize that everyone has a story, and that their reactions are a product of so much more than we can see.