On Homelessness and Helping

Spring has come! ‘Tis the season of pink blossoms, green pastures, and showing off those white winter legs in a new pair of shorts. It’s the season of hiking, biking, and a growing disregard for dirt tracked into the living room.

It is also the season when we once again interact with certain neighbors in our community: homeless people who sleep under the city bridge and stand at the intersections.

These temperature temperatures have allowed me to transpose my runs back to the early morning, and it is there that I’ve encountered the familiar faces who rest on the park benches and wave to me as I huff past the library. And recently, I was overjoyed (though unsurprised) to find some great insights from Econtalk’s most recent episode, Erica Sandberg on Homelessness and Downtown Streets Team. It was the perfect confluence of these reminders that led me to reflect on the title’s question in a more practical way than ever before. I’ve concluded that there are three main things, actually constituting a hierarchy, that I want to remember when meeting and greeting homeless people in my neighborhood every day.

Good: It’s Yours (to Give Away)

The first time I encountered the below quote, I was struck by something that I had never before realized. In the recent past, I’ve tried to quell my desire to give money away, as I learned that my actions could incentivize begging or that the money would be spent on substances– both of which scenarios only exacerbate the person’s long-term sufferings. But is the chance of this enough to justify withholding assistance?

On the other hand, the economist in me notices that money can be used much more efficiently than in-kind donations of things like food and even gift cards. For example, cash can be applied to clothing and rent whereas fast food gift cards are obviously limited. Finally, there was one question that I couldn’t ignore: If I have extra change in my purse after all my needs (and even most wants) have been met, would it truly be better for me to hold onto it?

 “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors: but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need… Another thing that annoys me is when people say ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is ‘But if I’d kept [it] I should probably have drunk it.’” — C.S. Lewis

There is a strange ring of justice here; one that utilitarian calculations cannot truly grasp. As the famous English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, “It is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.” So, if I do come to the point of question, may the benefit of the doubt be with homeless people and may I give that extra food or money which is mine– mine to give away.

And my genuine smile and wave too, yes, those are mine to give away as well.

Even Better: The Dignity of Work

But there is still something better; charity is only a temporary fix for a persisting problem. As Sandberg describes in the EconTalk above, restoring dignity through work is unquestionably the sustainable solution. The goal is not that homeless people will remain the object of our charity, but rather that we will come alongside them to help them walk the way out of homelessness. This is precisely where the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity go hand-in-hand. See Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (399)

The heart of solidarity is standing with one another through the trials and triumphs of life, essentially, recognizing our interdependence. The reason for both solidarity and subsidiarity are the same: human dignity. And part of human dignity is respecting the essential dignity of work. (For another great example in downtown LA, read Tattoos on the Heart.)

Best: You Need Them

Again, the dignity of work is wonderful, but there is still a prior wonder: the dignity of each human person. We need each other. We need our moms, our brothers, our friends, and we need the people in our city who are currently homeless. Each relationship is like an open door, allowing us to practice our human talents and to become even more ourselves than ever before. For a parting quote, I look to Pope Benedict:

“The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on…

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.”

“For We Can Only Wonder”

“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” –Denise Levertov

Over the years, I’ve heard various private and public voices argue that our culture–the millennial generation in particular–suffers from a need for instant gratification, constant entertainment, and a steady dose of thrills (see here and here and talk to your parents). There is clearly some truth to this, but perhaps there is something more. This hunger may be the blessed antidote for something that frightens me much more: numb minds, lukewarm hearts and the general stagnation brought about by a sleepless society (in almost all senses of the word).

It reveals some important information about ourselves, that we were made to be fully alive every single moment with arms stretched open to receive both the palm branches and lashes of life.

But how do we reconcile this taste for drama with the slushy grey snow and monotonous lectures that surround us most days? I’ve found an answer in the idea embodied by the word open— having open eyes and open ears. Although this will be published later, I’m presently typing this reflection on my personal magical rectangle, as I literally soar through the clouds themselves with a group of friends and many strangers. The experience of flying is almost too easy— only the most self-absorbed minds are not open enough to grasp the thrill and wonder in such an experience.  

Take my pending trip to the grocery store. I will soon drive my warm, fast car to a massive complex (my beloved Trader Joe’s), that is owned and operated by mysterious, unseen faces. There, I will play the fun game of stretching my college budget through bright aisles of exotic bananas, organic and fresh heads of lettuce, and past perfectly-proportioned boxes of Coconut Pancake Mix. Perhaps I will even collect a jasmine candle from Indonesia or a Dutch pink tulip plant— of which I am still always surprised to wake up and find this vividly living thing on my window sill!

And I haven’t even mentioned the glory in every detail of human friendship… I recently enjoyed dim sum with a beautiful old friend, whose fantastical entrance into my life was a generous compliment about my (infrequently) curled hair while we waited in line for lunch. What if I had run out of time to curl my hair that day! What if I had never attended that event, or that party, or made an offhand comment about that mediocre book! Somehow, these beautifully unfolding stories are ever more evident in the presence of this stunning peach sunset, and this momentous music, and the lingering memory of love letters that make up my environment. That is the function of beauty in art forms: the opening of the eyes and ears. They gently shake us awake to see the unfolding stories of which we play a part. Only with open eyes can I fully affirm the truth written by my old friend C.S. Lewis,

“But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work…”

So, hold on to that hunger for excitement, the urge to explore with reckless abandon, and the ache for a good story. It’s making you more childlike.


Perhaps this fascination with the daily details makes me sound like someone in love. Truth is, I am. The joy in being open lies in the fact that it is is a form of the vulnerability known by the lover’s heart. Peter Kreeft has explained it far better than I in this essay:

“We can see the same principle at work on every level: gravity and electromagnetism on the inorganic level; a plant’s attraction to the sun and to water and nutrients in the soil on the plant level; instinct on the animal level; and love on the human level. And within the human sphere there is also a hierarchy beginning with the sexual desire (eros) and affection (storge) that we share with the animals up to the friendship (philia) and charity (agape) that we share with the angels. The universe is a hierarchy of love. This is not a myth. This is the splendid and glorious truth. Look! How can you miss it? It’s all around us…

When Jesus threw open his arms on the cross, he said, in effect: ‘See? That’s how much I love you.’ “

Flowering Forth (For When Prose Fails)

How deeply do the rivers run

In each impassioned soul.

When twins revealed in books begun,

It’s homeward bound we flow.

~~~

So join with mine,

Thy powerful tides,

In seeking Wisdom’s sacred sign.

To wrestle on high,

Hope shall always prevail;

Come, take delight in

Thy sweet surprise again!

~~~

Finally at night, the chaste, cool rivers

May gardens overflow.

Peace to you who firmly plant;

Flowering forth you somehow know.

~~~

Silently looking into your heart,

Hush and receive unanswerable Love.

For in the High Secret

Of head on chest,

The mystery supper’s antiphon sung;

“Find thy rest, for

Now our Gardener has come.”

~~~

Sacrifice praise to our forever Friend,

Beautiful Goodness Ever-True.

At last, when resounding harmony marries:

Behold! He will make all things new.

Modern Day Virtues

Each day, as we enter the classroom, or the world, we carry the high—even the holy—calling of those given voice (Speaking for Sub-creation)

Whenever asked to speak before a group (though initially tempted to play sick and hide under the covers), this goof does her best to rise to the challenge. It’s quite a change from who I used to be two years ago, but as the above quotation exhorts, I’ve realized that there are things so important and so exciting that they simply must be said. Who am I not to say them?

Thus, the following passage contains the highlights of a speech that I gave on Tuesday night for a TFAS awards ceremony. There are blatant hurdles when it comes to translating speech into prose, but I think that these thoughts (largely inspired by this TED talk by David Brooks) merit being repeated. If nothing else, I hope you get a little chuckle from my personal stage cues!

P.S. A glimpse into my mind: the italicized and underlined portions are the words I especially wanted to emphasize– even linger on– for a bit.

Good evening everyone! First, I have a little confession… I had originally written up another speech for this, but after a few good conversations these last few days and reflecting on the mission of “The Fund for American Studies”, I’m convinced that this new topic is far more important and interesting.

My new topic is virtue. 

I know that if you asked each student here what one word could best embody their summer with TFAS, most would respond with something along the lines of “incredible amounts of learning” or “ great experience.” So I began to reflect on the questions:

What are the kinds of things that we’ve learned through our experience with TFAS?  And even more fundamentally, why are we learning them, or, what is the purpose of learning?

To begin, I believe that the purpose of learning is to develop virtue.  Virtue is a term that has narrowed in meaning over the years, but I want to employ it in the original fullness, coming from the Latin word for excellence or even courage. Simply put, a virtuous person is living their life in an excellent way.

Now I also believe that there are two kinds of virtue– two skill sets required in us for living excellently. Perhaps you are familiar with the way that David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of The Road to Character, explains this with great clarity as he labels them the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” In life, we find that certain virtues are helpful if we want to have more or achieve more in our career. An example of this is the principal virtue of the state, namely, justice. But some virtues are oriented towards being more or even giving more. A good example of this is mercy, the chief virtue of the family.

So, I’ve realized that what makes the learning that goes on through TFAS uniquely great is that it develops leaders who will bear the fruits of both the resume and the eulogy virtues.  The classes, internships, events, and professional mentors are great tools for shaping us into very capable and driven individuals. TFAS does this, and it does this exceptionally well. The proof is sitting right next to you– I look around the room and feel humbled and inspired by the accomplished people before me.

But tonight, I want to especially remind us of the stories that are ever unfolding underneath and in between the coffees, speeches, free food, and exchange of business cards. For we feel most alive, most human, and even most ourselves when we focus on our relationship with others and practice the eulogy virtues. The stories about TFAS that I will be telling around my dinner table one day are these: the cheerful sing-along songs and hair help each morning from my roommates, finding favorite authors in common with unlikely friends, and that one afternoon of hiking on the Billy Goat Trail that culminated with an “I’ll do it if you do it,” in reference to jumping into the Potomac River.

Each day of this summer, we were given vast opportunities to move one step closer to the career we want to have one day, but we were also surrounded by people whose quiet example encouraged us to grow into the virtuous man or woman we want to become one day.

Just one last thing.

As some of you know, I live and breathe in quotes, so I’d like to quickly end with some words from the old English journalist G.K. Chesterton. I invite you to listen carefully, because I think that these words are the key to practicing both sets of virtues. Chesterton writes:

“I would maintain that thanks is the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

So, thank you, TFAS, for helping us to develop both the resume and eulogy virtues. Thank you to those professors like Dr. Bradley and the others at George Mason who put the true good of their students first, thank you to the administration and leadership of TFAS (a special shout out to my leaders Mr. Colin Parks and Kate) who promote the TFAS vision most powerfully by their example, and lastly, thank you to all of my peers, my dear friends whom I have met here.  Your virtuous example and friendship above all has filled me with gratitude, happiness, and especially — wonder.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you forget yourself.

Sehnsucht in the Library of Congress

Deep calleth unto deep. –Psalm 42:7

It is no accident that lofty thoughts blossom forth in beautiful places.

But the really interesting thing is that man’s monuments and God’s landscapes do not push inspiration from the outside-in; rather, they engender a planted seed. Something already in us resounds and responds in harmony. An easy example is the clarity that emerges from our muddled minds when we find ourselves in the presence of a thundering waterfall, opulent temple, star-speckled sky, or keeping quiet vigil as the baby sleeps on our chest. In forgetting ourselves through contemplation, we feel as if we have returned to ourselves. There is a mystery in that.

It is for this reason that I’ve found myself studying in the Library of Congress lately (…also did I mention that they have a fantastic gift shop?). The magnificent trappings of the exterior and interior are undeniably conducive to good work. While reading (this and listening to this) in the company of new-friend and very-new-friend, I took a pause to look up and noticed eight named figures, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, Poetry, Philosophy, and Art, encircling the dome.

Above each was an inscription:


IMG_2064History: One God, one law, one element, and one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves. —Tennyson

Commerce: We taste the prices of Arabia, yet never feel the scorching sun which brings them forth. —Anon

Religion: What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? —Micah 6:8

Science: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. –Psalm 19:1

Law: Of law there can be no less acknowledged that her voice is the harmony of the world. —Hooker

Poetry: Hither, as to their fountain, other stars repairing, in their golden urns draw light. —Milton

Philosophy: The inquiry, the knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature. –Bacon

Art: As one lamp lights another, not grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness. —Lowell


How marvelous that a cluster of words, written down by a human being long ago, still calls out to us with power. No person enters the channels of time without leaving an impact, but it’s clear that a select few have been gifted with the most eloquent (or frankly boisterous) voices around our large family dinner table. Though the intellectual in me is sorely tempted to add my cluttered commentary to each phrase, I instead want to focus on the small, silent whisper threaded throughout each of them: There is something greater to come.

So the takeaway from this little rumination? Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that this is all there is. There’s a reason you feel more at home in beautiful places than anywhere else.

You were made for something more.

Adam Smith on Loveliness

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is well-known and well-loved for founding the study of political economy with of his famous work, The Wealth of Nations. However, he had in fact authored another book before it that is foundational to that foundation. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I would argue that it’s currently a more important read– especially as the culture of developed countries slumps towards moral relativism. Blatant evidence of the divorce of economics from its moral moorings is found in “the Adam Smith problem,” which encapsulates how economists (and experts alike) find it hard to understand that the same individual who wrote about becoming a good person and the origins of morality in a community was also fervently curious about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. For a man of his time, and a moral philosopher at that, the real question is how did he get so many things right about economics? The key is that he approached human behavior with an integral view of the human person. He understood the totality of visible and invisible incentives for our actions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes in the second chapter:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.

This is the crux of the intersection of economics and morality. Applied economics is a tool by which we achieve ends, and it is true that we do not necessarily need to judge those ends as worthy or unworthy of achievement when the models are used to determine whether they are achievable. From this it has been said that economics is an amoral science. Questions can clearly be formatted: Should Whole Foods make 300 more salads or 100 more cupcakes to increase profit? Should our family invest in real estate or bonds to save for our child’s college education? Should the federal government cut the income tax rate to raise revenue and increase growth?

But the interesting thing is that tool shapes not only outcomes but the craftsman himself.

With each fresh economic decision, we are also changed (the littlest bit) into someone either more lovely or more dreadful. The outcomes and outside standards of our life will determine whether we are praised, loved, and admired by our fellow man or not– but it is the inner, deep life and moment-to-moment orientation of our being that determines whether we are lovely to the core.

Thus, I would argue that economics is not merely amoral because the invisible moral reality underpinning our visible economic reality cannot be divorced from one another. The man who gives money at church is the same man who decides to pay private school tuition, is the same man who pays taxes and votes for officials. Later while describing vanity, Smith touches upon the problem that arises when they are. In contrast to doing things because they are inherently praiseworthy, oftentimes we act only for the praise and esteem of our fellow humans. The reality of “good choice” vs. “bad choice” are replaced with “makes-me-look-good choice” vs. “makes-me-look-bad choice.” Smith writes:

They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them.

In the United States, this extensive phenomenon has been labeled with the highly technical term “keeping up with the Joneses” and can be observed in every neighborhood, office building, and church. If you ask around (college kids do that kind of thing) that kind of life seems to be unfulfilling and just plain boring after awhile.

The good news is that many people, from professors to Popes, are writing about this essential relationship between morality and economics again. In “Rethinking Morality,” Professor McRorie discusses a few key texts to highlight the strengthening link between morality and behavioral economics. EconTalk and Intelligence Squared (podcasts I just gleefully stumbled upon) wrestles with these topics in refreshingly open discourse. And of course, there seems to be no subject on which the light of St. Pope John Paul II the Great has not shone:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus).

Back to Adam Smith– a real trap of free market cultures seems to be the ability to look praiseworthy without becoming praiseworthy. And here’s the real rub: there will be choices that will not gain us love, praise, and admiration by our fellow human beings. In fact, truly praiseworthy choices may even earn us hatred, blame, and suffering.

We must choose them anyway.

An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congressmen and Congresswomen of the United States of America,

Thank you.

There are a lot of other ways that I could have begun this letter, and I’m sure you’re well aware of them, but I was brought up to always write a thank you note when I had been given a gift. I was told to be specific and to acknowledge how exactly I would use this gift. Most importantly, I was taught to be genuine and generous in my language.

Thank you for giving me and every citizen of the United States the gift of your time and talents. I know that your position is hard-won, and that it brings along with it exciting prestige and power. I also know that it comes with daily encounters with people who say you aren’t good enough. Or that you aren’t smart enough, strong enough, or principled enough. Sometimes it’s your constituents saying this; sometimes you say it to each other. You probably didn’t foresee all the monotonous nights, suffering of your neglected family members, or truly tough moral choices.

Thank you for allowing us to trust you. Not a single human on earth knows enough to do your job to a wholly satisfactory level. In fact, I’ve often seen the wisest of you display the most intellectual humility. I know that you have to assemble a forceful team, juggle conflicting interests, and struggle with your interdependence day in and day out. Your role is glamorous at times, but all of us adults know that not all that glitters is gold.

Thank you for being role models. There are a good number of you who use your public platform to speak truth. Or encourage our nation. Or courageously speak up against encroachments on our freedom and justice. Your example does not go unnoticed.

Once again, thanks. We don’t ever say that enough to anyone– our leaders, our teachers, our next-door neighbors. I may not agree with what many of you believe in and have done, but I’m glad that our identity as citizens of the beautiful United States of America brings us together in our pursuit of happiness.

God bless,

Clara