A drop in the bucket

(Here’s a guest post from Andrew Swanson)

city sidewalk at night

I was walking down Michigan Avenue and heard a bell ringer. I was past the expensive shops, further down by Grant Park. I’d heard Salvation Army bell ringers all day while walking around.  I’ve heard them my entire life, including my couple-hour stint as one. I just pass them off as another object of the city.

Silver bells. Red buckets. Christmas time. City.

When I looked up, I saw in front of me a man in a wheelchair, bundled up, shaking a McDonald’s cup with change in it. Beyond him, on the opposite corner, was the bell ringer.

My first thought was who should get the change in my pocket? It’s a hypothetical question, of course, considering I have none in my pocket.

I know the Salvation Army is a great organization. I’ve helped them in various ways, from coins and bills dropped into their trademark buckets, to being a volunteer bell ringer for a couple of hours outside of a Walmart in Fort Wayne a few years ago. I know that they help people in many ways. I even helped out in one of the centers on a work trip in Chicago.

The change I’d put in the bucket could go to help people in any number of ways. Or, it could go towards buying a fancy new instrument for the Salvation Army band.

I’ve always been skeptical of charitable organizations. I can, in my mind, imagine that the money is going directly to helping someone, or I can look at the big picture, and imagine my money going any number of places in the organization. Ultimately, it will be helping an organization that is helping people.

On the other hand, I know that my change in the man’s cup will go directly to him. Maybe it will be for him to buy dinner, maybe it will be to buy booze, or maybe it will be for a night in a shelter. Lots of times, people say “oh, don’t give them change, they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with the money.”

I’ve seen the scams. My wife has seen the same lady in the same spot for the past five years in Chicago, telling the same story about being pregnant and needing money. But I’ve recently come to a realization. I support happiness, and happiness in a way that can’t be defined. To the person begging for change, asking for it for food, but knowing in their mind that they’ll be using it on a bottle of alcohol, they’re searching for happiness. Their definition of happiness. I can scoff and scold and turn my nose up, or I can help them achieve their happiness. And maybe, just maybe, they aren’t using the money in the way we all assume.

There lies the dilemma. Which person gets the change? Where will fifty cents (or a couple bucks) make the most significant human difference? What connection will change me the most?  What connection will change the world the most? Who will be the happiest person in the end?

Sure, I’ll get satisfaction for helping. But too many people get caught up in the results of their concept of helping.  If you’re going to toss some change in a bucket – or a cup – don’t worry yourself with where the money will end up. Just know that it is helping and bringing happiness somewhere down the line.

Andrew Swanson lives in Chicago when he’s not tour manager for a band.

For another look at questions of helping, see Nancy Swanson’s “He said thank you.”