Why do you give?

Tibetan Buddhist monk in red robes handing out...

At a recent potluck, the conversation turned to the issue of homelessness and how we can address it, as individuals and as a society. Someone remarked that they feel good if they give a homeless woman a dollar, and then they continue on with their day. THEY feel good.

The issue of homelessness and giving to homeless and beggars is complex, and I struggle constantly with deciding how to view and approach the issue–especially after growing up in Santa Cruz, which has always had a large homeless population, and being approached by beggars nearly daily in India. As I thought more about this issue, it seemed that everywhere I looked and read there were articles and videos discussing generosity and homelessness. I think it boils down to two concepts: why do we give and how do we treat others? 

To start, philanthropy has shifted away from its religious roots in anonymity into an aspect of public image, with naming rights for libraries and public centers becoming all too common. A recent NY Times article explored this phenomena, noting:

“But we can be grateful for the gifts while still inquiring after the givers’ motives. Why do so many givers ask that stuff be named after them: buildings, rooms, endowed professorships? Judeo-Christian tradition cautions against self-promotion. With charity, the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides wrote, it is best that the giver and receiver not know each other’s identities — in this way, the poor person’s dignity is preserved. (Better than charity, he wrote, is to give a poor person a job.) In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches that “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets” but rather “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”

A Rabbi argued in response:

“‘I think Maimonides is wrong,’ Rabbi Kushner said. ‘Because I think it’s very important, in matters of charity, both for the giver and receiver to see one another’s face. I think the poor man wants to know who’s giving the gift, and the rich man wants to see the smile on the poor man’s face.'”

Again: “The rich man wants to see the smile on the poor man’s face.” Yes, empathy and compassion are the place to start for anything we do, but who is the ultimate beneficiary here? Is it actually the rich man, who feels good?

Now, I’m not saying that we ignore the homeless or other disadvantaged communities. Quite the opposite, as this Good.is article and great iniatitive points out, a great way to start addressing homelessness is by recognition and listening.

“I recently spoke to a group of college students, and realized that this new generation is growing up with homelessness as a fact of life— a part of the landscape, instead of a problem with a solution. Changing our perceptions, about what it means to be homeless and what we can do about it as a society, is crucial to making change happen. And the right story does have the power to build momentum towards action.”

This video about homeless man Ronald Davis also strikes a chord, especially when he speaks about how he is so often dehumanized.

And then there is the recent news about the “Fitch the Homeless” campaign. This article in Huffington Post does a tremendous job of explaining all the faulty logic with this well-intended but deeply flawed idea.

Whether you want to give money to a homeless person or do more to address homelessness is a personal decision, and everyone has a different opinion and approach. But no matter what, we should be thinking about our motivation behind giving and how we treat our fellow human beings and citizens.

A Facebook friend recently posted the following with her own views on the issue of homelessness and her motivation to give:

“I hate when people question why I’m talking to a homeless man or giving him some cash for food because he might use it to “buy the alcohol or the drugs.” My response is, if the man tells me he’s a vet, I’m gonna have a conversation with him and give him some cash and he can do whatever he wants with it. If it were my sister or my friends who came back from war and couldn’t readjust to our society, I’d want someone else to pull over on the street and give them more than a disgusted, passing glance. Because he’s a human being, and it’s not your place to judge him.”

What is the motivation behind our generosity–is it for ourselves or our public image, or is it because of how we view the world, or how we want to treat others on a daily basis? For example, I support social causes because in my worldview I believe it’s the right thing to do. Yes, I feel good too when I see that my support, financial or otherwise, has made a difference, but I don’t give to feel good. This worldview makes me think about social issues all the time, but also makes me very conscious about where and how I help. While it’s true that generosity and doing good can improve self-esteem and happiness, I think we can be more thoughtful about how and why we are being generous. Do I think it’s wrong if you are giving primarily because it makes you feel good? I don’t think so, but I think you should do research to find out whether your generosity, despite good intentions, is actually helping. Why do you personally give? We will each have a different reason, but I think it’s important we spend time figuring out that answer.

Finally, when thinking about our approach in helping others, this is a great quote to keep in mind:

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson

What do you think? I would love hear your thoughts on this topic. 

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