$5, $10: Does it really matter?

5.jpgI went to Barnes and Noble this morning. On my way out of the parking garage, I passed an old man who had just found a discarded fast food container in the trash can and was eating the leftovers. I waited until I was past him then looked in my wallet for some money, hoping I had a $5 bill or some singles. I had a $10 bill and a $20.

Ten dollars seemed too much and the small amount of change I had–less than $1–would have been an insult. I hurried to Barnes and Noble, close to tears at the thought of how desperate you’ve got to be to eat someone else’s leftovers out of a trash can. The quickest way to get change was to buy a cup of coffee. There was one person ahead of me, so it should have been quick, but he had mistakenly proffered a Starbucks gift card, and the barrista had mistakenly tried to ring it up, and all this had to be sorted out while I stood there impatiently shifting from one foot to the other. When I’d bought my coffee, I dumped the cup on a table and ran back to the garage with a $5 bill in my hand. I was too late. The man had gone.

I keep thinking about him and wishing I’d given him the $10 bill. I have never in my life been hungry because I didn’t have enough money for food. And it’s not that I couldn’t afford to give him $10. Tomorrow I am going to give $50 each as Christmas presents to three young people, the grown-up children of a friend. They will be glad to have the money but they won’t want for food without it.

I don’t know why $5 seemed right and $10 seemed too much. What I do know, though, is this: It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the act. I’m pretty unhappy with myself at the moment.


5 Responses to $5, $10: Does it really matter?

  1. Kirk says:

    As an adult I have found myself balking at Christmas presents. Most of the recipients on my potential list don’t need anything, and I have an aversion to getting “things” for them out of obligation–things, on top of all else, they may not even want. So for years I didn’t give presents at all and said my “Thank yous” upon receiving theirs, but it was rough.

    (Gifts are such a “nuisance.” Everything I’ve ever given I’ve given without thought of receiving. Everything I’ve ever received I’ve received with an “obligation” of my own devising to return the favor. Nonsense. I know. I know. But there it is, and it makes me hesitate to give. Isn’t that a shame.)

    But many people are “traditional.” My brother and his wife have always given me something, and on top of everything else, I’ve wanted to “communicate.” But how to do one thing without frustrating the other? Well, eureka, I hit upon it at last. I would give to a charity my brother and his wife valued (and I approved of) in their honor.

    It’s worked like a charm. I’ve enjoyed finding out what they care for–and they have responded in kind.

    I tell people about this. Last week, one of these people, Troy, told me what he’d done for Christmas this year: “I gave them all donations to charities in their honor. It was so interesting finding out what they cared about. I learned a lot–and it feels so good!” (Oh thank you, Troy!)

    Most of us have so much. What is it we lack? The joy of good done in our name perhaps?


  2. passante says:

    A number of years before their deaths, my parents and I stopped exchanging gifts and did just what you describe–donated in each other’s names to charities of our choosing.

    In fact, I give and receive very few gifts and those few are small (homemade cookies, a book, a CD–things like that). The gifts of money for the three young adults (one a college student, one in training for the police, and one in the first year of a first job) are the biggest.

    But if I had given something, whether $5 or $10 to that poor man in the parking lot, I would have felt I’d given a gift that really counted for something.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    I do get into the Christmas gift-giving routine, but I also try to attend to those who are in real need of cash. Recently, I chose to help the family of one of my students – it also gives me a new perspective on life and on the holidays, when I know that this couple and their four kids are really having a tough time making ends meet, and they do work hard.

  4. Kate says:

    Passante, I miss your posts and glad that I found this one. I understand your consternation over the $$ dilemma. Because we have grandkids, it’s hard not to give gifts. This year we have downsized and no-one seemed the worst for wear. Because children are so important, I give to UNICEF, without waiting for a holiday and it works for me. Am not preaching–just sharing my own pattern which makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something important.

  5. Passante says:

    I didn’t mean to come across as being down on gift-giving in general or in some way morally superior because I give and receive few gifts. Neither is the case. And I certainly don’t grudge giving $50 to young people of whom I am very fond and who, while they don’t strictly speaking need it, are just starting out and certainly can make good use of a bit extra.

    The thrust of the post was that I am haunted by my reluctance to give that poor, hungry man $10 that I could so easily spare. A whole mix of things go into it, among them self-consciousness about being in a better place than he. Five dollars, I thought, wouldn’t make it so obvious. And the result of my running around to get what I considered a more “suitable” sum of money was that the man got nothing. I will not let this happen again.

    Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting.

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