Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Are you a cynic or a sucker?

Think about it: If you had to choose, would you rather be a jerk or naive?  A cynic or sucker?

"Cynic!" answers in unison my demographic of over-educated, urban-dwelling, political progressives. After all, cynical irony is the hipster credo, and no one wants to be mistaken for a rube.  Smart is the new black, and you'd rather be hardened than foolish.

And "Cynic!!" repeats my demographic of expats, aid workers and world travelers   Here too, cynicism marks you as a respected "old head," someone who's been around so long you're no longer impressed by cultural differences and cannot be taken for a fool.  You view the wide-eyed wonderment of the newcomer with disdainful irritation. You're no longer her.

Culturally, I'm firmly part of these camps, which both wear cynicism like a badge.

But I'm also closet sucker.

Here's the story:

The other day when I was walking into the grocery store, I was approached by a man.  He was neatly dressed with an undercurrent of exhaustion, sweating and wiping his brow repeatedly.  He greeted me like he knew me and I was a bit embarrassed that I didn't recognize him.  "I sweep the grounds at Marigold school, where your son goes." he explained.

Nothing funny so far. People here are big into greetings, and as a minority we're often recognized.

His agitated state was explained as he launched into a horrible tale about his wife who, just the other night, was killed while riding on a motorbike right around the corner from where we stood.  He pointed to the very spot, where a woman was seated selling roasted maize, and described the car that hit her, a silver Prado.  He was running around that day trying to collect enough money to get the body released from the morgue when he recognized me.

I think:   Holy flipping s*#t!!!  That's horrible.  But sadly, I've come to know in my 2 years here, not uncommon.  Traffic accidents take as many lives as dreaded tropical diseases. We knew a child who was killed by a motorbike driver last year, and just yesterday a minivan, that our friend's daughter just missed boarding, crashed and killed 6.  And I've also learned that raising enough money to liberate a body from the morgue is financially crippling for a lot of families and can significantly delay funerals. His tale might sound tall elsewhere, but not here.

And asking an extended network of people for help from anything from weddings to funerals to medical bills is a common and often organized practice. I'm in a culture in which people survive by leaning on each other and there's no real taboo around asking for help.

But... but.... Then there's this nagging thought springing from my inner cynic, which says:  Are you kidding?  This is a perfect story.  Tragic with an immediate need. You've been approached in the US with elaborate stories of woe and knew them to be scams.  He's seen your car, that you have money. Don't be taken for a fool.  Most true cynics stop here and walk away.

But then this voice, which always seems to get me, counters: Well.... What if it is true?  And if it is, a few dollars, which you won't even miss, could make a world of difference to this person.  Moral calls of "What Would...um...  My Agnostic Conception of Spiritual Prophet... Do?" ring in my ears.  I want to err on the side of good.

Most people have rules about this.  Just adopt a policy about never giving to strangers so you never have to struggle with indecision. They say, donate to organizations that you know are doing some good.  But this wasn't a total stranger and I already donate and volunteer.  Those organizations are not going to help him out here.

So, what did I do? I gave him a little money and walked away with my trusting and cynical natures still battling each other.

And what did he do?  Well, I don't know.

I should end this here and save my pride, but the truth is, I found out later that he did not work at my son's school. I was scammed. I was taken.

But he didn't take my inner sucker. I like her.  I like the world she wants to believe in.  I like that she keeps me from becoming too jaded and spurs me to do good in the world.  I think I'll keep her around.  Even if it costs me a few shillings once in a while.

How do you treat these situations? Are other people as ambivalent as I am? Would you rather be a cynic or a sucker, jaded or trusting?

40 comments:

  1. I don't know what I'd do. I'd love to say I would have walked right on by, ignoring the guy. But I know my heart would probably gone out to him, just like you wondering "What if?"

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    1. Yes. It's the "what if" that always gets me. Even if there's a 10% or 5% chance it's true, I'm giving a few dollars...

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  2. I would have done the exact same thing. I tend to lean towards being more gullible, naive and sucker-ish and ... I've also been taken for a fool because of it. Like you, I still like to believe in that world where good prevails. Really great post, thank you.

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    1. Thanks Melissa! Thing is I HATE being thought of as gullible, so I guess this is my way of "taking back the word." ;)

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  3. I think you did the right thing especially since it was an amount of money you said you wouldn't miss. It would be worse to not help and find out later that it was a true story! I think it says something awesome about you. Love this post!

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    1. Yes. That is always what motivates me - the possibility that the story is true. Though I guess that's what makes it such a good scam. A lot of us don't want to risk that...

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  4. This was a fantastic story -- touching, well-written, thematic. It made me think -- and I hope it does so for everyone who reads it. You also have a wonderful voice in your writing, which reminds me very much of my best friend since the fifth grade. I'm sorry you got scammed, but I love the end that you like that inner sucker and the world she believes in. I want to believe in that world too, so this post really moved me. Simply beautiful. I hope you get properly recognized on the grid!

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    1. What a wonderful compliment! I love being compared to someone's best friend - I cherished mine so much.

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  5. I agree. Wholeheartedly. At the very least, think of it as paying for an entertaining story. We pay $15 to be shown a Hollywood film, right? Why not think of it as sharing a donation for the added details to your brain.

    Well told.

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    1. Exactly! In fact, that used to be my standard line - well, if it was a scam, the acting was at least worth a few bucks, right? My husband thinks that's a lame justification, but I like it!

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  6. Wow, as someone who has recently lived in Haiti, I know about these kinds of struggles. It was so easy to be conned in post-earthquake Haiti, but (and this is a big but) there were staggering needs that were more-often-than-not legitimaate. The problem we faced in Port-au-Prince was being mobbed by others in need if you were seen giving something to anyone. How does one handle that? I never fully reconciled myself to any of this before our year in Haiti was over and we moved home to the US.

    Saw your post on yeahwrite, where I am, for the first time, submitting a post. Don't know how long it takes to apprear on the grid. But, I LOVED your post.

    Hugs,
    Kathy

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    1. Oh, I can imagine how hard that must have been. You don't want to be stingy when you have so much amid such need, but you don't want to be a lightingrod for a bunch of requests you can't handle. It's such a difficult dilemma of aid work, and I think that's why most people just draw a line and then don't cross it. But I don't think the struggle totally disappears. (Saw you on the grid and it's great to have you on the yeah write front porch!)

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  7. I am an unabashed sucker. I chose to believe that most people are being honest. Yeah, I've been stung a few times, but it is so much easier to enjoy life thinking the best about people. I would rather be known as a generous fool than a stingy cynic.

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    1. I agree. I don't want to walk around with armor on, not letting people in because I'm afraid to be taken advantage of. A think coat of armor is OK, but no metal.

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  8. Ah, that's a tough situation! But the stakes weren't high for you (a few dollars). I think you made a good decision

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  9. So Kimb -

    I read the title to your post, and I thought, there is not a cynical post in your body. I began to wonder, when did you become cynical? And then I read the rest of the post.

    Ours is not to determine the need - ours is to fulfill acts of chesed - acts of lovingkindness.

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    1. I think my cynicism is in my sarcasm and lack of sentimentality, abut my sucker is in how sensitive I've always been (for good and bad).

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  10. I think in this part of the world you need to be a little bit of both. I've done both - walked on by and helped - either way I always wonder if I should have done the opposite. In my opinion if you become too cynical you start to lose the ability to empathize and if you are too trusting you get taken advantage of. You have to find your own middle ground and do the best you can at the moment.

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    1. Exactly! I think the answer is always a balance in which your trusting and cynical natures are fighting it out and keeping each other "honest." I have done both too and always felt ambivalent about it. This was an attempt to NOT feel ambivalent about it, but there's probably an element of justifying my behavior after being taken advantage of too. ; )

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  11. Inwardly I'm one of the most morose, jaded people who'll ever meet. I'm the perfect Smiths' fmusic fan. But outwardly I'm very trusting (my wife says too much so) and 100 percent a sucker. I think it;'s important to be both but moderate each.

    good post

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  12. Inner sucker, I like that. I have one too.

    I have done the same thing quite a few times. There's a guy in Houston (who got me twice) saying he's in town for cancer treatment but just needs some gas money to get home to San Antonio. I figure there is a 10% chance that he's telling the truth because Houston has a huge cancer treatment center. 10% is enough of a chance for me to hand over the five bucks or so that was in my change cup.

    I don't feel bad though. If he was lying, that's his wrongdoing and not mine.

    And I love that my blunt, cynical, practical husband is the same. In Brazil he drove a young pregnant couple to the bus station and gave them the $100 to buy bus tickets home after hearing their tale of spending all their money to come to town for a promised job that fell through. He was highly pissed off to see them again the next morning telling the same lies to someone else, but at least he knew he tried to do the right thing and I know he would do it again if he found someone else he thought needed help.

    It's a tough call, but I think it's easier to live with being scammed than to live with not helping, especially if you have enough to give.

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  13. ack! had this happened in Chicago where i live, i would've said I don't have any cash (generally the truth). :( i hate when it's a lie, but ... ugh.

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  14. I love this post. I share this battle with you-- do I believe as I wish or do I let my jaded side win? I mostly make peace with themboth. I would have done exactly what you did! Or what Christina said-- because I lie a lot.

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  15. I love this post.
    I think I would have done exactly what you did.

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  16. I don't care if the story is true or not. I wouldn't have even listened to the story. I would have walked away before he got to the second sentence. its not my problem. I give to charities. I don't give handouts on the street. ever.

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  17. The funny thing is, even from a cynical perspective, your action (and justification) make sense. You say:

    "I like that she keeps me from becoming too jaded and spurs me to do good in the world. I think I'll keep her around. Even if it costs me a few shillings once in a while."

    So you're willing to pay the asking price (which in this case was very low) to allow yourself to maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

    I think the key is -- as you note -- not to feel ambivalent about it. You decided to help (or in other cases, you may decide not to help) for a reason, and that reason should not be affected by whether or not the people asking for help were being truthful.

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  18. I would have probably done what you did and given the money. But, after learning the truth, I'd have been furious. I think it's terrible that people will take advantage of the generosity of others, especially in a culture where it's still the norm. Good for you for not letting it ruin your perspective. Hopefully the next time you're approached it's for real.

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  19. What a story. It is sad that he felt he had to con you instead of just honestly asking for money. I tend to err on the side of caution as well, especially if it's something I won't really miss.

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  20. I am always ambivalent. I really do want to believe the best of people and when it comes right down to it, yeah I want to be that helpful woman that brightened someones day or just came through during someone's tough times.

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  21. This is such a hard situation. My inner sucker was hoping until the end that you weren't being scammed (although that sounds like I was hoping he had a wife who was killed in a crash, which doesn't sound right either), and I hate that it turned out to be one. But I still think your heart was good in this moment, and really the best we can do is control our own hearts, because we sure as heck can't control anyone else's.

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  22. I have the same inner sucker and would have acted like you. I remember being young and living in the city (Chicago) and being constantly barraged with people asking for money. We called them bums at the time but they were homeless. And I remember trying to talk to them..."if I give you this dollar, promise me you'll buy coffee". It's different now and I always feel awkward when I help and the same when I don't. Loved the way this was told. You write beautifully!

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  23. See, I don't think that's a difference between cynic and sucker. I think it's a difference between human and overly guarded. Better to err on the side of kindness when the difference is so small.

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  24. I like to refer to myself as a cynical sucker. I will be drawn in but I will remain wary. I like my inner sucker too; she's nice, always smiling and happy (much unlike the other head voices/people inside me who are evil wenches from the underworld telling me everyone is out to get me).

    Even though this man proved he was not trustworthy, I don't think it should make you question your usual use of sucker/cynic, however it may fall/however you decide to use it in a certain moment. Our gut feeling/first instinct is usually the correct one. I like to look at it this way: he needed money for SOMETHING. Maybe it wasn't for a dead wife (thankfully), but maybe it was for dinner. There's some good somewhere, even to the cynic in me who's trying to smack the sucker.

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  25. I've lived in an ex-pat community where this sort of thing happens on occasion. Maybe lots of occasions. I have done exactly what you did. I never look at it as being gullible. You did a good thing. You can afford it. They have little. Unfortunately for him he burned his bridges. You wouldn't do it again even if the story were true, you wouldn't believe him. I've traveled a lot, and the same thing happens all over the world. I've been taken to task by other travelers for handing out 50 cents to beggars. I'm ruining it for the travelers who come after me, they said. I got that a lot. I understand compassion fatigue, it can wear on you, but is a few dollars for a fake story so bad? I'm the biggest cynic out there and I still hand it over each time. You have a good heart, Kim. And this was beautifully written, as well.

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  26. I loved this! You have a smooth velvety tone to your writing that's so pleasant to read - like eating double churned extra creamy ice cream. I'm definitely a sucker, but I wouldn't have given him any money. I support the charities and causes I believe in and don't ever give money out on the street. I do give money to individuals, like when a trust is set up at a bank to cover someone's medical costs etc., but not directly to someone on a corner. Maybe I'm more cynical than I thought.

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  27. the guy should have just stated his case directly without pretending. He should have borrowed for money directly http://www.christiantruthcenter.com

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  28. Wow, Kim - this post clearly struck a chord with your readers. I know that you'll never become a cynic, even if what you (we) do and where we do it can easily open that particular door. And I love that you care enough to care.

    My two cents? It's an unnecessary choice. You don't have to go either with either the cynic or the sucker. You can be open, and openhearted, but also see with open eyes.

    As for the specific situation you faced, it’s a variation of pretty common scam in these parts. PersonallyI probably would have walked away, but I wouldn’t call you wrong for giving something. It’s all about seeing clearly. Some of the best advice about this I ever received came soon after we arrived in Nairobi many years ago. “If you agree to someone’s request for a loan, mark it in your heart as a gift. That way you, and the relationship, remain OK whether or not it is ever repaid.” You faced a different situation, but perhaps the gifting frame still works.

    And I still remember the husband of that advisor, explaining why there were some people to whom he would not loan money under any circumstances and naming one in particular, saying in complete sincerity, “He’s a crook. I love him like a brother.” Neither a cynic nor a sucker was he.

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  29. You took me back to Buduburam days... Here in Bali we don't get the stories, but we do have children begging on the street, and every single time I say no, I ache a little on the inside. If that were Edem, I think, I would want someone to give him the time and money. Oy...

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  30. I live in Nairobi and I go through the same feelings every time a beggar approaches me. I've been suckered a few times to the point that I've learned to give what won't hurt me, for those times that I feel sorry for them. That way, I don't feel the pinch when I realize that I was suckered, or conned.

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