Don’t mistake activity with achievement-
The importance of selfless service can be found deeply rooted in our local communities.
My heart has been wanting to share my dedication to selfless service for some time now. Recent world events, a few long bike rides and the time I spent attending the Citizens Academy for Omaha’s Future has allowed me to collect my thoughts to present to you here. I have so much to share with you, I have finally decided that now is the time to pour my heart out. There still are some lingering thoughts that trouble me: Is it truly possible to give to others without expecting anything in return? To cast my pride and ego to the side? And of course, yesterdays post addressing compassion.
Recent world events in Nepal and locally have got me thinking about the “behind the scenes” act of charity. I think we can all agree that on its face, charitable giving is fairly noncontroversial. Agree?!? Someone is in need, we sense their pain, and we lend a helping hand in return. Over the years, we have developed the ability to respond to subtle cues in others, not only intuitively, but emotionally. We are literally tuned to feel empathy, to experience someone else’s feelings as our own. Our capacity for empathy is so deeply ingrained in our being, that we respond not just to actual suffering of living beings but to representations of suffering as well. Remember in the Star Wars movie when Luke Skywalker had his hand cut off? Old Yeller anyone?!?
Charity, empathy and harmony are in our genes. And yet charitable action, as personal habit, has some dubious, counterproductive features. First, our charitable impulse tends to be reactive, not proactive – The homeless man on the street and the charitable begging of Omaha Gives. We are “all-stars” when responding to the disaster that recently happened, not at preparing for the one yet to happen. How many of those who donated recently to Nepal’s victims would have contributed similarly to an effort to bring their antiquated infrastructure up to code years before the quakes ever happened?
Because we depend on raw emotion to spur us to give, our giving is susceptible to the many distortions that beset perception at hand. Every second of every day around the world, there are countless people in need, hungry and wounded and homeless. Just like those in Nepal, here in Omaha and a community near you. They are quite frankly, non-events; tedious and boring, and boredom does not elicit the empathy required to motivate charitable giving.
While charitable giving will always be necessary, I argue that, morally, if the life of a devastated family in Nepal is really as worthy as the life of a family in Omaha, Nebraska, then that life should not depend on whether someone in West Omaha rolled out of bed in a charitable mood; should not depend on the viral appeal of the Omaha Gives media blitz. Should not depend on whether that family’s suffering has been successfully bundled into a sufficiently sexy narrative about the latest “spectacular” disaster on another continent.
Instead of patting ourselves with compassion and kindness on our backs, as we click “donate now” for the poor people in Nepal, we should ask real questions about our own individual process of compassion, and whether better ways exist to harness it for genuine, love soaked good. Through further soul-searching, I found that you must be in a selfless frame of mind before engaging in selfless service, or your efforts may be tainted and off-putting.
This is my letter to the world – That never wrote to me-
I used to get upset with strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them an inner struggle I felt towards myself for having such a difficult time telling them “not today friend.” Yet each time I’m asked, and with the Omaha Gives campaign coming up shortly, I wonder again, about what it truly means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with a homeless man in the Old Market has caused me to reflect once again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest compassion, of which I know I am capable of.
It’s not that I lack compassion for the homeless and charitable organizations, just that, my compassion for them remains only a fleeting feeling. I don’t believe giving them money represents the most compassionate action I could take. I say this because the most compassionate action I could take would be to introduce them to compassion and kindness, a practice I genuinely believe has the power to help anyone, in any circumstance become whole, but I don’t do that either because it is woefully self-serving and akin to proselytizing, which I loathe.
I’m not just writing about and discussing homelessness and charitable giving with you. I’m talking about the part of me that believes selfless service is possible and that a selfless person would be overflowing with compassion. I’m writing about the part of me that keeps asking if there really is any greater value we can produce as human beings than to help another person to become happier. Because every time I turn down a homeless person’s request for money, ignore all the insistent ads about Omaha Gives … What I think to myself isn’t that I should have given them what they wanted or desire, but rather, exploring compassion would have given them what they need.
What am I trying to explain when I mention exploring compassion? For me, compassion requires both empathy and sympathy. Empathy involves responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar to your own. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. The struggle I have with my very own definition, is how easily it causes me to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means: Giving people what they want, well, just because they are bothering me at the market or begging via an online ad or an endless stream of emails.
I routinely find myself incapacitated by the thought of disappointing anyone. And though giving people or local organizations what they want helps, I feel it does not make them happy, it does so only transiently and usually leaves them unimproved, denying them the motivation to take on growth, and in turn, producing new challenges. Also, people quite often want what isn’t good for them. If our aim is to help others become happy and content, then we must apply our own judgment to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf.
Compassion and kindness – Seva – remains my true path in life, although one I’m able to walk upon far less often than I want. When asked for money by strangers, my typical response is: “I don’t have any cash or change with me – Sorry.” But this is often not even true. I’m certain the reason I lie ultimately comes down to cowardice, though why I’m afraid to share with them the truth is not yet entirely clear to me.