I was at the Chevron getting gas when he came up to me. He was around 40, drably dressed with a scraggly beard, tousled brown hair and a dirty cap. He was smiling, though, if only because he wanted something from me.
“Excuse me, bro, but I’m about 50 cents short on a pack of cigarettes. Could you help me out?”
His candor was refreshing. Most panhandlers tell you it’s for food, lodging or bus fare. I had to admire his honesty.
However, as it stands I have the conviction that helping someone smoke cigarettes, no matter how hellish his life might be, is unjustifiable. Beating a nicotine addiction is enormously difficult, and people usually need all the help they can get, such as (in the case of this individual) realizing that it makes no sense to put up with the ongoing suffering of going without their daily fixes. Pain is a great persuader. I would do this man no favors by helping remove the downside of his love affair with cigarettes. It wasn’t about the 50 cents.
I also knew I would feel pretty flaky if I told him I didn’t have it. I learned a long time ago that it’s much better to deal with a few seconds of discomfort turning someone down than several minutes (or more) of feeling like a phony because I violated my own principles to avoid having to say no. There is a special, desolate kind of remorse that is felt when one betrays his own proper inclinations. Philosophers call it “existential remorse.” If a person does that often and long enough, he ends up going around like a mealy-mouthed ghost of a man, with neither principles nor the strength to stand up for them.
So I responded to the man’s request in a light tone, “Well, I don’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.” I finished by giving him a charitable smile to let him know it was nothing personal.
He smiled back and told me, “My doctor says I should quit.”
“I think that’s good advice!” I told him, and went in to pay for my gas.
As I was coming back out of the store, I saw that the man had made his way across the parking lot and approached another person by the gas pumps. I walked out just in time to hear the panhandler say to the other guy:
“Well I think you’re weird, motherf____!” I saw the panhandler throw a punch. The other guy tried to dodge the blow, but he still got clipped.
The guy turned his hands up in a submissive posture and asked, “Hey man, what’s your beef?” Obviously he had expected to brush the guy off like junk-food crumbs and walk away like nothing happened.
The panhandler’s beef was he didn’t like having people call him weird. He had gotten his point across, too. Another customer drove by them, rolled her window down and urged them not to fight.
It was true; the panhandler was weird. But as it turned out, the other guy’s insulting attempt to brush him off had only succeeded in creating more difficulty in getting rid of him. It had also gotten him punched. As I took all this in, Proverbs 15:1 (quoted above) came to mind. It also occurred to me that being truthful doesn’t mean freely sharing your thoughts and feelings with everyone. To the contrary, another Scripture says,
“A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Prov. 12:16).
Just think how much grief we could save ourselves if we applied these principles consistently to our lives. It occurred to me that my failure to consistently apply the wisdom of Proverbs in my life is less about acquired habits, neuropathways and presence of mind than about my heart. How sincerely do I believe that the whole of Scripture is one big love letter from God? How convinced am I that all its directives were set down for my good? How committed am I to living out those convictions intentionally? On the other hand, how much of a priority do I place on looking strong and confident in front of others? How often do I wrestle for control with people who oppose me? How much of my time and energy is devoted to arranging my circumstances to my own liking?
“Above all else, guard your heart, for out of it flow the issues of life” —Prov. 4:23