Poverty and Humility Lead to Heaven: From Asking for Food to Asking for Money

While the rich are getting richer, the “poor” are getting richer too.

The Grimms included a story called “Poverty and Humility Lead to Heaven” in their collection of tales. In the story, a prince searches for a way to enter heaven. Upon the advice of a poor beggar, the prince puts on tattered dirty clothes and lives as the most poor and humble man on the streets for seven years. He does not ask for money, rather he only asks for morsels of food from kind people. Once seven years have passed, the prince, unrecognizable at this point, returns to his family. He requests that the servants tell his parents of his arrival, but they refuse. The prince tells the queen that he is poor and hungry, upon which she takes pity on him and allows him to stay in the castle. The prince is fed very little by the servant who believes a beggar does not deserve such fine food, choosing to keep it for himself or feed it to the dogs. Eventually, the prince dies from starvation.

Although one would think that the story would have ended with the cruel servant dying rather than the humble prince, most fairy tales in the Grimms’ collection have unfulfilling, dissatisfying endings. However, the point is that beggars back then truly asked for the bare minimum amount of food needed to survive. The idea of humility of the poor seems to elude today’s society, especially in New York.

Case-in-point, the panhandlers of New York City’s trains seem to be very capitalistic beggars. Rather than ask for food, most panhandlers today ask for money and only money. On rare occasions, a New Yorker will encounter that one panhandler that asks for food in addition to money. The sincerity of their request for the consumable rather than the monetary, however, is questionable.

One day, while riding the L train, I was approached by one elderly panhandler. The man looked sincerely hungry and desperate. He had given the usual panhandler’s speech to the train car, except he insisted that even the smallest amount, or even a donation of food, could make a difference in his day. I had no cash on me on that particular day, but I did have a few granola bars in my bag. I decided to give the panhandler one of the bars when he headed in my direction, to which he gave me the greatest look of disappointment and shook his head, choosing to toss the granola carelessly into his pocket and move on to thank those handing him money. I was angered yet amused by the transgression. It made me realize that even in the most dire of situations, within the U.S., namely New York, money reigns over all, even the vital necessities for life like food.  Humility like that of the prince in the tale does not exist among most panhandlers in New York.

Although many may think that my experience with that particular panhandler was unique, I have seen similar situations unfold before me numerous times both in the subway and on the streets. One particular man stood on the stairs leading to the Hunter College campus daily asking for money. One day, he pulled out a Blackberry from his pocket, leaving me completely astonished to see that the supposed beggar who claimed he had no money and needed monetary help had a better phone than I did.

Although this viewpoint may seem cynical, it is worthy to note that in an increasingly superficial world, looks can be very deceiving.

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