Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | December 9, 2014

Courting Folly?

I was “friended” on Facebook recently by a young man from The Gambia. He rather quickly ended up asking for money to buy his family food.

Of course, I’m well aware that the Internet is enabling people to run scams more easily. This might be a 23-year-old Gambian man struggling to find ways to help his family survive, or this might be who-knows-what from who-knows-where, trying to add yet one more sucker to a list of well-intended folks who contribute to his (statistically, yeah, he’s male) already formidable income stream. He might be making more money than ten of me.

To me, figuring out what’s really going on is not the issue. For one thing, it’s impossible to do it from where I sit.

If he’s legit, he’s in a much worse situation than I am. This was brought home poignantly when the topic of my sons bicycling to South America came up. I gave him the link to their Facebook page, Life On the Wind, and then I realized how their photos — many of them taken around well-decked dinner tables — would look to me if I were starving in The Gambia. Even the trip itself, as daring and gutsy as it is, would seem like a luxury.

Even though it might be reasonable for me to err on the side of caution, my prudence holds virtue only to me. If this young man and his family are starving as he claims, and I do nothing to help them, prudence is a far distant second to the primary point.

If he’s not legit, then funding his scam would make me a “mark” who let myself be fooled or duped.

There’s no way to know.

So why fret a question that I can’t possibly answer? Why make it the primary question? Aren’t there other important questions about this that I can answer?

Yes, there are, and they’re illuminating.

First, what makes me think that the chance of being duped is more important than the chance of helping someone in dire need? Isn’t it worth the risk? Will my self-esteem suffer from losing a little money? I can afford to throw away $10 (which is all I’d send, to start with anyway.) Even if he is a con man, he’s probably way worse off than me (unless he’s really not from The Gambia — but he’s got a lot of photos that make it look like he is.)

So I have to admit: it’s really not about money but ego.

Second, who says that being wrong about this would mean that I’d been fooled? If I give money and it turns out to be a scam, does that alone mean that I was duped? No. My eyes are wide open. I’m not trusting blindly. I recognize that I might be throwing money away. I’m risking only $10 and the time it takes to send it, along with trust to take him at his word. Is my self-esteem so frail that it can’t take a small hit like that? Is it even a hit?

I could, for example, look at it as a minor gamble. Gamblers don’t feel “duped” when they lose. We gamble all the time: when we try to get through the intersection as the light turns yellow, or when we try one more bench press than we’ve ever done before, or try for the umpteenth time to beat that particularly tough villain in a video game, or try to get her or his attention without turning her or him off. If we don’t feel like losers when we lose those gambles, why should I feel like a fool if I give this guy some money and it turns out that he misrepresented himself?

The only answer I can come up with is that I might look like one if someone else found out.

Just looking like fools doesn’t necessarily mean that we are fools, of course, unless we can’t distinguish appearance from substance. Looks can be deceiving. People can get the wrong impression. Rarely do we fully and accurately express what’s inwardly true, even when we’re doing our best to be honest and transparent. And when we succeed, how often are we fully understood? Sometimes, by a few, if that. So, unless we slavishly live and die by how others see us, (and some people certainly seem to,) we go at least partially misunderstood on a routine basis. No biggie.

So what judges me a fool to give $10 to a stranger who claims to be starving in The Gambia? Whatever I choose as a judge. But since I’m doing the choosing, I choose me. So I ask myself if I’m being a fool, and myself tells me that he’s pretty sure I’m not. And so, I believe me. 🙂

And then I do whatever the hell I feel like.



  1. So very well thought out, as usual. Thanks for the commentary.

  2. If you could describe the real difference between you and the beggar, then you would know what is at stake. It is not the act or amount of giving, although I feel better if I give him enough to get a meal, as it is the recognition of the difference in the positions in the society that each person lives out. Most people enter into a state of denial or anger when the idea of this difference dawns on them and they repress it. Compassion dictates helping and it places us in the sights of the enemies of helping, of the enemies of the beggars and the poor. The fear of these enemies can paralyze us into denial or into frozen anger.

    • I think those are all pretty egocentric concerns — views from my/our perspective — as were the concerns I tried to think through in the piece. The beggar doesn’t care about them. So do we give him money for his sake, or ours, for the sake of some ideal? I think that motivation is telling.

  3. You make a valid point. While this mirrors many “scams” out there, if you are able to send it without any strings then, the gamble is certainly yours. If it fruits then good on ya. Otherwise, lesson learned. As the local teenagers say, you take the adage, “Don’t judge me” and wear it well.

    • haha, thanks! I found out that they’ll judge me anyway, so might as well have some fun with it. At least I learn more than they do. Judgment is the excuse people use to reject and avoid new information. Self-dumbing action. I never thought much of it. More fun to explore… 🙂

      • Sometimes, when you step outside the norm, it is just fun to be lucky enough to win the gamble and rub everyones nose in it. Those that initially judged you are silenced. 🙂

        • Yeah, it’s nice when that happens, but the universe is pretty recalcitrant. It seems to prevent that from happening until we no longer care if it does. Weird. 😉

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