Giving is… to living as exhaling is to breathing.
Giving is to living as exhaling is to breathing. If you’re not giving for half of your life, you are not fully alive, anymore than someone who continually holds their breath and then has to gasp for air is correctly breathing.
Giving involves much more than simply redistributing money or material goods from one person or group to another. I myself was a sucker for that ASPCA ad showing pathetic puppies and kittens looking out with “those eyes” while Sarah McLachlin sang “Angel” in the background. I melted like cheap cheese on a hot sidewalk. Before the commercial finished I had called the number on the screen and pledged $19 a month.
This demonstrates the lowest yet nonetheless valid reason for giving: to assuage guilt, real or imagined. My donation absolved me of responsibility for not rushing to the nearest animal shelter and adopting all their current residents. But here’s the problem: my automatic contribution needs no further investment of thought or energy. Sure it helps the ASPCA, but requires little involvement or concern from me.
Giving to panhandlers poses a dilemma for us “bleeding hearts.” Yes, they’ll probably spend it on booze—or worse—and that is reason enough to ignore them. Should they appear young and able-bodied bolsters our decision with self-righteous indignation. “Get a job!” we might think or say.
When I lived in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, seeing beggars in the streets of Seoul was a fairly common occurrence. Orphans and runaways (at least those who looked like orphans and runaways) were especially effective. I passed one such kid in the same spot everyday on the overpass near the then-Peace Corps headquarters near Kwang Wha Mun intersection. The kid seemed so pathetic. I never saw his face as he knelt, with hands out, head to the ground. One day after I gave him a few Won, I was told these kids usually worked in a group for an older beggar, who assigned prize locations and extracted a sizable percentage of each day’s haul. But I could not resist the urge to help, to do something, to give. The next day as I crossed the overpass, I saw the kid in his usual spot. This time, I gave him a corn dog. Without lifting his head, he grasped the stick and pulled it slowly in toward his mouth.
When I visited very Buddhist Thailand, I changed my attitude towards begging and alms-giving. Every male is expected to serve some time as a monk. Even the king did this as a youth. Every morning, the streets of Bangkok came alive with monks going from door to door to silently ask for monetary donations or food offerings. And the local merchants and residents would stand in their doorways with trays of offerings to hand out to the monks, reminiscent of trick-or-treating in the States.
I spoke with several monks. They said they view their begging as offering people a way to acquire merit, or karma. So the monks were in fact giving people an opportunity to show generosity!
We can relate to panhandlers on a personal level without being material. I learned this lesson from a beggar near Columbia University where I was studying journalism in 1987. Our assignment was to interview a homeless person. I made an appointment to interview this middle-aged man and invited him to breakfast the next morning. As we settled into our seats at the counter, I asked what he’d like. “Nothing for me, thanks,” he said, “I already had breakfast.”
That stopped me. I thought I had hit upon a way to get an interview, feed a beggar and feel good about myself all for the cost of a cheap meal. “I just like to talk with people,” he explained. He wanted my most precious gift: my time.
Money I can replenish; things I can replace. But time is the one thing we have a limited supply of and once it’s gone, it never comes back. But to spend time, quality time, with another person, especially those down on their luck, or sick, or elderly, is in my opinion, one of the greatest “things” we can give.
I have also come to realize the “what” we give is not as important as the “how.” We can donate automatically, like I did to the ASPCA, or consciously as I did to the beggar boy, or intentionally as I might do when visiting folks in a retirement home. A smile and sincere “Hey, how are you today?” feeds the spirit as surely as a few bucks may (or may not) do towards feeding the stomach. While the person might beg to differ, a smile and personal greeting seem more valuable than a $100 bill thrown in indifference without so much as eye-contact.
Letting a person know I actually do see them and acknowledge them as a fellow resident of this city, country and planet, does much to restore dignity and self-respect. Mine, no less than theirs.