How to be kind when the answer is “no.”

“I’m so embarrassed. I don’t do this. I had my first treatment chemo treatment today, and I haven’t eaten in two days. I got nowhere to go. I don’t know how else to put it. I’m asking you for twenty dollars.”

The woman was crumbling. Dissolving in front of me. Her eyes were scattered and wild.

She’d cornered me at an ATM inside a gas station, late one Saturday night. The mini-mart manager had tried to deflect her, and even offered her a job application.

I could see the frustration (and pain) on his face. “Not another one.”

And on hers? Pure desperation.

She followed me outside, and launched into a frantic spiral of stories. Her illness. Her terror. Her hair, shaved off at the clinic.

The gruesome truth, about a woman facing a death diagnosis?

A torrent of lies masking a drug addiction?

I didn’t know. And it really didn’t matter.

I gave her five dollars.

She burst into tears, and begged for more.

I gave her a twenty. And a hug.

She asked for my name, told me she’d pray for me, and took off like a spectre into the darkness.

I never saw her again.

I gave her the money.

I said “yes” to a desperate request.

I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong.

But I didn’t feel like I’d done anything right.

As a sad-eyed therapist from teenage days of yore once told me, “Life is messy.”

No kidding.

I don’t always offer money to everyone who asks for it, on the street. Sometimes, I say “yes.” Sometimes, I say “no.”

And while it’s undeniably messy and gray, I do believe that it’s possible to be gentle, to be nurturing, to be respectful and kind, to honor someone’s humanity … even when the answer is “no.”


“No, thank you.”

“The answer is no. Please take care of yourself.”

“I’m going to say no, but I’ll pray for your recovery.”

“The answer is no, but I’d like to help you in a different way…”

“I’m not able to give you the cash you asked for, but here’s a gift card for a sandwich. There’s a place just down the street.”

“There’s a shelter at the corner of Stevens & 22nd. You’ll find help there.”

“If you need money for bus fare, take this bus pass instead. There’s a $5 dollar credit left on it. That will carry you home. Travel safely.”

“No, I don’t carry cash.”

“No. Please be well.”

Whatever you choose to say — yes, no, take this instead — say it with respect.

Even if the answer is “no,” let your intention be clear.

“I am not blind to your pain, and I am wishing you well.”