Imagine a young girl in a classroom. Because her family has little money she shows up to class with no school supplies and asks the teacher for a pencil. The teacher obliges but hands her a pencil with no eraser. When the girl simply requests a different pencil with an eraser, the teacher declines, saying “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Brittany Means was that little girl and she has now gone on to author her first book, Hell if We Don’t Change our Ways. When she recounted that story to me recently, we both wondered aloud about the origin of that phrase. It apparently dates back five hundred years ago to a time before there was any organized state support for people who had less. It was an admonishment to be grateful for whatever was given because at least you were being given something.

I’m sure I have used that phrase many times before without considering its uncaring origin or the potential for its cruel use – as in the case of the little girl who had the audacity to want a pencil with an eraser like all of the other children.

I began to interrogate the phrase in my mind and wondered why beggars should not be choosers. Should a person who is homeless when considering where to sleep have a choice beyond a bench or a shelter that is not safe? Shouldn’t any mother be able to choose a healthy option to feed her children rather than the cheapest alternative that allows her money to go further?

I don’t remember much from my algebra class but the transitive law is one that we would all do well to remind ourselves of from time to time. Simply put it goes like this, “if a=b and b=c then a must equal c.”

What does that have to do with beggars?  Well finish the statements below.

If all people should have a safe place to sleep and beggars are people, then beggars should….

Or if all people should have access to healthy food and poor mothers are people, then poor mothers should…

And of course, if all children should have pencils with erasers and Brittany was a child, then Brittany should…. have had access to a pencil with an eraser.

While most people would agree to all the above in principle (and many similar formulations), in practice we often fall short.

We can scornfully question why someone doesn’t have a home, a meal or a pencil or judge them as undeserving. In the process we dismiss the simple math right in front of us, complicating the equation with the noise of our own biases or assumptions.

Should you find yourself in such a situation, try recasting the formulation using a first person pronoun. For example:

If all people should have a safe place to sleep and I am a person, then I should have a safe place to sleep, or

If all people should have access to healthy food and my mother is a person, then my mother should have access to healthy food.

Solving the “how” to do this isn’t always as simple as handing a kid a better pencil but agreeing on the underlying premise or problem shouldn’t be complicated.

As they say, the math doesn’t lie.

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