I recently enjoyed a holiday in the beautiful Polish city of Gdansk: known for the grim shipyards where Lech Wałęsa first led striking Polish workers in their opposition to the communist regime but also boasting grand old churches, elegant streets and, just a few miles beyond it, the sprawling Baltic Sea.
There were few unhappy moments in this holiday but one of them occurred when my companion and I were eating ice cream outside a restaurant. Two Romani children approached: a young boy playing an accordian and a girl who must have been five or six. As the boy cranked out a tune – with, I admit, a little skill – she walked around the tables rattling a paper cup and asking in a small, insistent voice if she could have some money. She did not look aggressive. She did not look desperate. She looked confused, as if she was unsure how she had found herself in such an odd situation. When her confidence appeared to shake, the boy (her brother, I assume) would order her to approach another table.
It was tempting to throw a few zlotys into the cup, perhaps because I wanted the poor kids to eat and sleep well and perhaps also because I wanted to assuage the sneaking sense of guilt one feels eating an ice cream sundae in front of a child who might dream of enjoying one. But how would the money help them? Who would spend it, and on what, are the obvious questions but there are more things to ask. Do donations encourage the wards of such poor kids to send them out again on pitiful, demeaning and, without adult accompaniment, perhaps dangerous travels? Is, consequently, a culture that neglects their interests and, it must be said, degrades the city allowed to spread? It was not a hard temptation to resist.
Compassion is hard, not least as it appears so easy. Phenomena that seem to demand the simplest human kindness can raise all sorts of practical and philosophical questions, and solutions, if they exist, might be far less obvious than one at first assumes. Give these kids some money? Perhaps they should be put into schools.
Lest it seems that I am holding myself up as an exemplar, I should say that I have no idea how hard this would be, and will almost certainly do nothing to see it attempted. Like yours, my compassion is essentially capricious. Even the Good Samaritan had to be in the right place at the right time.