The Art of Giving
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 15 2014
Last weekend, a woman from the village visited our home with her daughter. We shared some food and conversation and they left with a few items of food we had in the house. Later the woman said how happy the gifts had made the family. Although the family are fortunate in having a house and some land, their situation is not good. There is no regular income. The mother is a seamstress but the income from that is sporadic. The husband has mental problems. He does not encourage visitors to the house and sometimes locks the wife and daughter in the house and disappears. The daughter is epileptic, partially blind and there is some paralysis on one side. She is in her early twenties and the mother is in her fifties. Although we are not rich, we are able to make a difference to that family simply by paying for medication – only Rupees 1,500 per month – and pay the mother to do some sewing work for us. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO. We plan to use our medical contacts to find out if anything can be done about the daughter’s eyesight.
Making a Difference
I do not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. I write not to boast of my own saintliness but to give readers an idea of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving.
Last week, I challenged ethical philosopher Peter Singer’s idea of “making a difference”. Singer advocates regularly donating a percentage of one’s income to charitable institutions. He recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy.
Bhikkhu Bodhi edited a small book of essays called Dāna – The Practice of Giving. In his introduction, he writes: “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating the pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion”.
One would not be eradicating delusion if one merely set up a standing order to pay a percentage of one’s salary to an organisation without finding out how the money is used. The Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia wrote: “I know what I have given you but I do not know what you have received”.
Singer’s writing in The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of his usual subtlety of thought. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” If I forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body there is no guarantee that any benefit will result (except to the corporation’s employees). The most likely immediate result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a painless donation. Singer’s stated aim of eradicating extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from a bank account.
Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Today it is much worse. Humanitarianism has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.
I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. I have provided cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended, we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into other village houses. We have helped with cataract operations – these can be provided free but a small extra financial input can make the process more comfortable. On a trip to Colombo, we noticed along the route that a woman from whom we had bought fruit was distressed because a violent storm had wrecked her home and her business. We gave her money to replace roof sheets. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, somewhat off the beaten track not far from our home. We reinforced their community work by helping with their building work and arranged a water supply for them.
Ecumenical Community Projects
There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. He is very ecumenical and states “people are humans first”. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school and Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He is now in his late 80s. Over the years, he has initiated many community projects such as providing a water supply to village houses; organising a huge pit into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking; establishing computer classes for local children; various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale were organised with the local catholic priest.
When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. Our friend the high priest offered to buy the car as it would be helpful to take him to his diabetic clinic appointments and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge. The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put right many mechanical wrongs, spray-painted the car, and proudly added many little accoutrements. The mechanic says he cannot ask for payment because we made a gift of the car. A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.
This gift had beneficial consequences for us. When we first came to live in this area, we felt some hostility and suspicion. After giving the car, we were greeted with smiles everywhere.
The Gift Relationship
Richard Titmuss, British social researcher and teacher, published The Gift Relationship in 1970. He compared blood donations in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some bought and sold). Titmuss’ s conclusions concerned the quality of communities where people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood). Titmuss helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation.
Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom, among Muslims, Hindus and Christians as well as Buddhists, to provide dānes (the Pali word for giving).
Giving It Large
Some cynics might believe that the main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance or the assuaging of guilt. Michael Milken boasts of his philanthropy and is lauded for it, but expresses little contrition for the fraud – back in the days when “greed is good” was the motto- that landed him in prison.
Andrew Carnegie warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away over $350 million ($ 494,200,000,000 in 2014 money) and he had established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death. Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.
Greed and Giving
Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures. Dāna is the very practical act of giving; caga is the generous attitude ingrained in the mind by the repeated practice of dāna. The word caga in Pali means giving up, abandonment; the selfish grip one has on one’s possessions is loosened by caga. When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.
You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.
It’s a bargain!