Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Giving

Giving is an issue that runs through my head on a daily basis. With the current economy-situation it can be difficult to be generous a times. Or maybe that isn’t true—haven’t I heard that those who are closest to poverty give the largest percentage of what they have to help others? Debt is more the burden I bear (student loans that is) that weighs on my heart of giving. There is the constant tug of being responsible to my debt vs. needing to help others who are in harder situations.

Then again, I afford myself indulgences. I travel around this country for more than just work. I’ll even eat out on occasion. Of course I should have enough to share with those sitting on the street with their hands cupped for offerings.

Why is my first response defensiveness and embarrassment when approached by those asking for a hand-out? I think in part it is America’s system of giving to particular charities, which in turn deal with the target groups. We are most often a step removed from that outstretched hand, from the verbal pleading. Or, if we do encounter someone on the streets there is an element of distrust. Why hadn’t they been helped by charity X, Y Z that I donate to? Are they looking for drug/alcohol money? Are they crazy?

Maybe I’ve just been too sheltered by my own accord. Now I feel myself sticking out like a sore thumb—foreigner = money. I’m sure I attract more attention, but those who were on the streets were there before I left my house, palms up.

I’m embarrassed to be followed when I am walking with a friend. Even more embarrassed when the Moroccan opens her coin purse, instead of me, to quiet the pleas. Am I not here to help those in my community? Peace Corps has an emphasis on providing skills and knowledge to be passed along to improve peoples lives, not on providing mere handouts that may not last until the next one. Teach a man to fish and all that.

Maybe it is just my struggle with spontaneity. I am much less likely to say “yes” to an invitation to lunch today than tomorrow. Your chances are even better if we set a time next week. Give me time to consider the consequences and I am much happier for it. Come up and tug on my shirt while I’m in the middle of vegetable shopping and I’m too taken aback to want to say yes, even if I have my coin purse handy. I’m not good at impulse shopping.

Moroccans know the system. Giving is a pillar of Islam. You are expected to give when you have something. This is not just reserved for the needy. If you peel an orange it is rude to not hand juicy sections to those in your presence, especially children. Moreover, the system of charity we have in the US is not seen to the same extent here. From my observation, people in my town are likely to give directly to those in need rather than to an organization.

So what do I do? I can’t say “yes” every time I’m approached. A trip outside my house during peak times can seem almost like a frenzy. I don’t want to feel like the rich foreigner or the fool--the easy target. My discomfort at having to make a snap decision keeps my coin purse shut all too often. When do I say “okay”? How do I judge who is most worthy? How can I be humble enough for generosity?

4 comments:

Wander Full said...

Well said, in a way you have already chosen to give by not getting caught up in the materialist cycle that is U.S. culture. I wouldn't be too hard on yourself, I know plenty of giving people that feel uncomfortable with begging. Maybe it's a moment to moment reaction or just remembering to treat all people with respect and dignity. I think that the buddah even used to beg outside of his favorite meditating park. I struggle with this notion of giving when I consider what it means to be an artist and how do my skills serve the world. I usually go back to Joseph Campbell's idea that an energized person activates the world so do what makes you feel alive.

Loda said...

It is difficult to see so many people with outstretched hands, and you feel the need to help them, because even though you are working for the Peace Corps, I'm sure you're more wealthy than anyone over there who you meet in the street solely b/c you're an American. You cannot afford to give to everyone. I would say just give when it feels right. Unfortunately there are so many people and you can't give to everyone, you have to look out for yourself, too. I think it would be hard for me, too, b/c you're absolutely right- here in the US, we give to an organization and we never see the people standing in front of us and see the reality of the situation. But I definitely wouldn't go on thinking that you're not being generous enough.

Lisa said...

Thank you for the supportive comments guys. Maybe I'm being to hard on myself-but I know I can do more to help people. Since I wrote this post I've tried to take advantage of opportunities to give--particularly when I see them coming. The man/woman who is sitting on the corner gives me enough time to think about whether I can give them something before I reach them.

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