Is it just me, or do other people find it odd that we have three “holidays” of consumerism, #BlackFriday, #SmallBusinessSaturday, and #CyberMonday, bookended by holidays named for the act of “giving,” Thanks-giving and “Giving Tuesday“? (I had no idea #givingtuesday had its own official link)
Don’t get me wrong. I love deals. My husband and I are planning a trip back to Ireland and the UK this winter, for the December holidays, and have been eyeing deals Friday and Monday at REI and Uniqlo for warm and affordable wear while we’re there. I also highly support small businesses – we celebrated Small Business Saturday with time spent at Indian Road Cafe, for one, and even bought apples from Inwood’s Farmer’s Market.
And, of course, I support giving.
Giving and Karma Yoga:
During yoga teacher training, I learned about several different kinds of yoga, from Bikram, to Hatha, Kundalini, Raja, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, etc., etc. The list goes on and on (and yogis are developing new structures and “types” of yoga all the time!)
One kind of yoga, and one of which almost everyone is familiar in some way, is karma yoga.
According to the Vedanta Society of Southern California, karma yoga is
the yoga of action or work; specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves.
When we say, “what goes around, comes around,” or “karma’s a bitch,” or, of course, “instant karma’s gonna get you,” we generally think of karma as the thing that comes back, especially when someone does something shady. But, karma isn’t the boomerang.
Karma is simply the “action.”
Read that above quotation, again (not the Lennon one). Karma yoga is action performed “renouncing the results of our actions.” On that note, I suppose, true karmic yoga goes hand in hand with something like “Giving Tuesday.”
Okay, so the connection is obvious…
We don’t need a lecture, or even an entire blog post, to show how karma, as “action,” as good action, relates to something like “Giving Tuesday.”
But I wanted to share an article I read recently, that a friend sent me, and how I feel it connects to this idea of “renouncing the results.”
In NYC, we pass by a lot of displaced people, or, “the homeless.” Many of them may be relatively well-put-together, with what seems like an obligatory “God Bless” cardboard sign, or with detailed explanations of their life’s journey, or a family pet they still hold close. Still others clearly have been on the streets for some time – or are nearly on the streets – and suffer from ill health, addiction to drugs or alcohol, struggling perhaps to form coherent words and sentences, or even walk or hold their heads up.
signs collected as part of the Sukkah City project in Union Square (2010). Photograph captured from Rael San Fratello
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters is up 74% from ten years ago, and most of these people are the victims of a lack of affordable housing. Many struggle with mental illness. The Treatment Advocacy Center states that lack of affordable mental healthcare is forcing many patients to be turned out onto the streets.
Clearly, this is a problem… but what does it have to do with “Giving Tuesday”?
The classic “should I give money to a panhandler” debate is fraught, and over-exhausted. But, in the light of karmic action, and a holiday of giving, I wanted to share some thoughts.
Atlantic Monthly wrote in 2011 that while directly giving money is certainly a relief to those who need it, donating to charities that help those who need is the better long term solution. But, their viewpoint is still a bit problematic. They write that there is a two-edged sword to giving “beggars” money (I admit I cringe at their use of that term):
There’s not enough change in our purses. We choose to donate money based on the level of perceived need. Beggars known [sic] this, so there is an incentive on their part to exaggerate their need, by either lying about their circumstances or letting their appearance visibly deteriorate rather than seek help.
If we drop change in a beggar’s hand without donating to a charity, we’re acting to relieve our guilt rather than underlying crisis of poverty. The same calculus applies to the beggar who relies on panhandling for a booze hit. In short, both sides fail each other by being lured into fleeting sense of relief rather than a lasting solution to the structural problem of homelessness.
I’ll admit, I’ve always thought that giving to charities or shelters that aide people who are displaced or suffering on the streets was always the most long-term efficient way to help them. But… it doesn’t immediately help them. Even the Atlantic, in the same article, admits that with time lags and fees it takes a long time for money to make its way to helping individual people.
And, I really don’t like it when people speaking (or writing) from a place of privilege, of any kind, claim to know the intentions and mindsets of those who appear to be beneath them.
What should we do? How can I give a dollar or change to someone on the street, when I know they might use it to buy drugs or alcohol, and not food?
Recently, I was sent this article, from The Guardian, written by former drug user and founder of the charity User Voice, Mark Johnson. His point? That if an addict uses your dollar to buy drugs… it’s none of your business.
That’s a hard pill to swallow. He writes,
…frankly, it’s none of your business where an addict is on his journey. If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that’s nice but not your business either.
Your business is to know that money desperately needed by someone went directly into his hand.
It hurts to hear that it’s none of my business if someone takes the dollar I give and funds their addiction – be it drugs or alcohol. But I also don’t understand what it is to live the painful lives of those who are willing to be degraded and dehumanized on the street in order to get something they feel they need. And I do know that the affordable housing problem is very, very, very real, in NYC.
Johnson, in his article, does recommend exercising caution with “legal street beggars,” whom he calls “charity chuggers.” I’m assuming he’s telling us to do our best to discriminate who is on the street because they need to be, or are forced to be, and who isn’t. But this brings me back to Atlantic Monthly’s presumption that they know what “beggars” are thinking when they decide to milk the system.
You might guess who else shares his opinion.
The Pope was interviewed by a Milan magazine before Lent this year, where he had some fantastic things to say about “giving without worry.”
But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do youdo on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.
Sounds a lot like Johnson’s case about worrying your money will be used for drugs, doesn’t it?
And… giving without worry is certainly another way of “renouncing the results of our actions”?
Regardless of anyone’s stance, I hope that giving to charities that help people in need, people that don’t share the same privileges many of us do, is a practice of yours.
But, when I can, I will give.
This #GivingTuesday, I encourage you to consider giving that change or that dollar in your pocket to someone in need – when you have it to spare. Or, engage them in conversation and find out if there is something they need that you can help them get. But work with compassion, “renouncing the results of our actions.”
For charities that support the homeless, consider donating to one of the following:
Safe Horizon – helping victims of crime and abuse, including youth homelessness
City Harvest – working to fight hunger through food rescue and distribution
The Doe Fund – connecting displaced people with jobs