An Experiment in Human Nature


I am conducting an experiment in human nature. It didn't start out that way -- and it's certainly not my ultimate goal -- but I'm conducting it nonetheless because I have an idea of how it will turn out and, if I'm right, it will bring good upon others.

A little background:

Every Monday night, for the past year-and-a-half, a few friends and I meet downtown to where the homeless loiter, and we pass out food. That's pretty much it. No sermon, no lecture, no "teach a man to fish" -- we just give them food and talk about whatever they want to talk about.

This is not a church committee. For one thing, different participants show up from week to week and we don't all go to the same church. In fact, we may have even had non-church people help out in the past. To be honest, I don't check. I personally don't care to have this be an "official" church activity for reasons that will soon be obvious. Besides, if people want to help, who am I to stop them? Or even discourage them?

But back to the experiment: When I first started my weekly visits, I arrived with 40 hamburgers and about as many canned sodas. The problem was there were about 150 to 200 people who qualified as "customers."

So imagine this: You. Alone. With a big bag of McDonald's hamburgers. And all you can see from every direction is hands.

Shoving and rudeness is a big obstacle to overcome. Left unchecked, it's the default. It was scary, but not for myself. I knew none of them would ever let any harm come to me. I quickly figured out that when you show kindness to someone -- even a rough bunch of potentially angry men -- by serving their needs, they want to keep you around. "If Hamburger Man gets hurt, he won't come back." Love always protects.

As the months went by, I gained some help -- more "employees." There was no signup sheet and no long-term commitments. If you show up, you help. If you don't, you don't. We have had lots of turnover in the last year-and-a-half, but no hard feelings: Remember, no long-term commitments. I will be there every Monday; you just join whenever you feel like it. The help that arrived was not something that was technically needed, but still greatly appreciated. Some good innovations have arisen because of the extra helpers.

We gradually changed the menu from hamburgers and a soda to a bologna sandwich sack lunch. (This way we can feed five times as many people on only twice the budget.) When there's extra cash, we get them toiletries and blankets and other treats, but the meal is the constant. It's nothing fancy, but I don't think I've ever heard a serious complaint. (Intoxicated, yes. Serious, no.)

During this time we've also drifted away from the Mob of Hands scenario: Otherwise known as the "bum rush" (yes, I know what that means now). Through a little bit of pleading and a couple of threats to leave, we now have a line waiting for us every Monday at 5:30 sharp. Sometimes there are police officers present to help out, but most of the time the line forms on its own. And when I say "on its own," I mean that a few people have taken the initiative to start a line and a few others have taken the initiative to respect it. Once those few people have taken their respective initiatives, a relatively straight line forms. From that point, we routinely drive up, open up one of our bins, and hand out a bag as the line proceeds. This sounds like there would be no problems, but you'd be surprised how just a little greediness can turn a straight line back into a mob of hands. Then we're back to square one.

Just for the record, I personally don't care one way or the other if they stand in a line or not. Either way, I will be sandwich-less by the end of the night. I have nothing to gain by their co-operation. On the other hand, I feel that they would enjoy the experience much more if they show each other some courtesy. Love is not rude. It is not self-seeking.

I've never liked the idea of threatening to leave unless they do as I say, and though I've never made such a threat in so many words myself, I know I have made the message relatively clear. I didn't enjoy doing it. I would later be reminded, "there are those who lord over their subjects and call themselves benefactors." Generosity and tyranny cannot co-exist. To attempt otherwise is to be a hypocrite. The whole point of generosity is to bring peace where there is oppression, not to simply be the new incarnation of oppression.

Still, I want our customers to enjoy our service, and the spontaneous development of mobs tends to remove any enjoyment that might have otherwise thrived. In a mindless fit of creativity, I recently imagined a day where the employees could just show up, open up the bins, and let everyone help himself -- knowing that whatever happens, the customers will look after each other and see to it that everyone else is taken care of. To anyone who has seen the current situation, it would appear as though I had been smoking crack: This is obviously a ridiculous idea and there is no sense in pursuing it. Yes, I have seen certain individuals give up their only food to someone else who needed it, but the idea of a small community doing this is unthinkable!

Still, the dream nags at me.

About a month ago, we handed out blankets. The good thing about blankets is that the customers will not put theirs down for fear that it might get stolen. For this reason, we are able to easily tell who is going through the line a second time and who is a first-timer. (Second-timers are welcome unless they deprive late-coming first-timers of their only handout.) We also tried something new that night: Only let five people go at a time. Five people get a lunch and blanket, then move off to the side. Once they have passed, the next five go, and so forth. This was merely requested, not demanded, and was designed to help thwart the temptation of any sneakiness. Everyone participated beautifully and, from that day on, we have stuck to this request whenever possible.

But this morning I noticed something: This "five-at-a-time" method could be used as a baby step toward realizing my ridiculous dream. You remember: The dream where we allow a free-for-all while resting assured in the knowledge that everyone is treating each other with respect.

It is my opinion that any government which forces its will upon others is, by definition, tyrannical: It can go under the name of "Freedom," " Liberty ," or "Church," but those are just labels. I can just as easily go downtown and hold the homeless captive to my own desires in exchange for food and call myself a benefactor, but that wouldn't make it true. On the other hand, I have seen with my own eyes that a few individuals can strongly influence others while genuinely refraining from trampling on their rights. Remember the line that formed "on its own"? This is exactly how it happened.

My point is that governments are oppressive by nature and, if yours isn't now, it will be soon enough. In fact, governments are oppressive by popular demand from people who want to pursue their desires and don't want the riff-raff taking their booty from them. Instead, they ask the elite take it from them . . . in exchange for their protection, of course.

So then I see people who are against this type of government oppression and who believe that citizens should be free to pursue their own desires without government intervention. It sounds noble enough. The flaw, of course, is that the weak will immediately get trampled and a government of some sort will be forced to arise because everyone is too busy pursuing his own desires to lend a hand. Just a single cry of "Why should I have to help?" and you can bet that some sort of oppressive government is on its way. The obvious solution is to have people who aren't caught up in their own desires -- who are willing to help others at their own expense. The problem is that such selflessness cannot be mandated without removing the very freedom it is designed to protect. This sucks.

For this reason, it is my belief is that it does absolutely no long-term good to preach true freedom unless it is accompanied by true selflessness. Without such selflessness, true freedom is a failure from the get-go.

But back to the experiment. For real this time.

I hypothesize that my dream (not the one where I go to work in my underwear, but the one where we could just show up downtown, open up the bins, and let everyone help themselves knowing that whatever happens, they will look after each other and see to it that everyone is taken care of) can become a reality within two years' time. Here is what I plan to do in an effort to see my dream become reality:

- Baby step #1: Quit handing out the bags. We keep the five-person count-off, we keep the watchful eye over the stockpile, but we allow each person to grab his own lunch. It's not quite the Honor System, but it's a start.

- Baby step #2: Put all the bins out at once. (Currently we only bring out one at a time.) Keep everything else as-is.

- Baby step #3: Quit regulating the five-person count-off. We make the request, and then leave them alone.

- Baby step #4: Quit standing by the stockpile. We watch from a distance, but don't "stand guard."

- Baby step #5: Quit requesting the five-person count-off. If they do it on their own, that's fine.

- Baby step #6: Open the truck, display the open bins, and let everyone do as they please.

- When we see someone abusing the system, we quietly take him aside and politely tell him that we'd like to see everyone leave in peace and ask for his help next time. Eventually, this initiative should be handed to the customers. Granted, these steps might change if I think of another idea, but the basic principle should remain the same: We head away from control and towards freedom. I have come to terms with the fact that, as a part of this experiment, I will have to strive to be patient, kind, content, modest, humble, polite, selfless, cool-headed, forgiving, just, honest, protective, trusting, hopeful, and persistent ' but that I should not feel obligated to force these qualities upon others.

So tonight, amid a bit of apprehension among the "employees", we took the first step and refrained from handing out the lunches but instead allowed each person to grab his own bag. The change in procedure was so subtle that none of the customers noticed that any alteration was present. And it went off without a hitch. To my knowledge, there was not a single complaint (that's a big deal, by the way). We will try this a few weeks to look for any potential obstacles before taking the next baby step. In the meantime . . .

Baby step #1: SUCCESS.

I'm well aware that I will probably get some feedback as to why my plan won't work, but the fact is that only time will tell and the feedback won't make a bit of difference (not that I'm unwilling to listen to your advice anyway). On the other hand, if you think this idea has merit, try it yourself: Don't merely demand (tyranny) freedom for the oppressed, give it to them yourself!

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