Today I gave a homeless man $20.

I’ve seen this guy on the streets with some regularity since I’ve been living in Kingston. He’s easily recognizable for the red jacket he wears at all times. Whenever I see him I ask him how he’s doing. His response is always “Could be better, sir”, which makes me a little sad. I give him spare change on the occasions I have some.

What with it being the Christmas season, I was feeling somewhat generous. I saw him sitting around his usual spot, and I thought “you know what, I’m going to make this guy’s day.”

I walked up to him, gave him a $20 bill, and wished him a merry Christmas. He said “Thanks.”

I walked away from the encounter feeling somewhat empty. I’d expected a little more than just “thanks”. I can’t imagine that this man sees $5 or $10 bills very often, much less a $20. But from his reaction, you’d have thought I’d given him a loonie.

On one hand, I don’t want to criticize a homeless man for being ungrateful. On the other hand, I kind of want to criticize a homeless man for being ungrateful.

He did say “thanks”. But doesn’t gratitude scale with the value of the gift or service provided? I mean, if you buy me a new iPod, my reaction is going to be different than if you buy me a new pen. That’s just how it works, isn’t it? Are homeless people exempt from the rules of gratitude?

I’m not saying that the only reason I gave the man the $20 bill in the first place was so that I could feel better about myself. But yeah, I was looking forward to receiving his gratitude. Gratitude is big for me; it’s as good as receiving a gift in return.

And so I feel almost cheated. I gave him $20 worth of value and he gave me $1 worth of gratitude in return. Is it fair if I go back to him and ask for $19 in change?

I hope he’ll buy himself something he needs with that bill, but next time I’m making it a $5.

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