I got the greatest compliment ever at The Gathering Place Friday. Our lovely Sister was leading discussion, using idioms as a jumping off point for participant opinions and experiences. I was sitting next to L, the older (but not that much older) Native guy who has become one of my favorite parts of The Gathering Place. He’s full of wisdom and teasing and bullshit and generosity, and is clearly a model of stability and decency for many of the folks who hang there.
The idiom was “don’t judge a book by its cover.” A few folks offered their agreement (I objected only on the literal topic of books, since I’ve found several favorites that way.) L raised his hand. “Yeah, I totally believe that. Because this one next to me, when she came in, I looked at her and thought she was what we call a do-gooder. But I got to know her these months, and she’s a real person. She thinks about things and listens to people.” I tried not to tear up and briefly touched my head to his shoulder in gratitude. “Hey, now she’s head-butting me!”
I know why this was such a big deal to me, but in case you haven’t struggled with this dichotomy, I’ll try to lay it out for you. In Buddhist dharma (and, certainly, elsewhere), donating your time, money, talents, skills should never be an act of charity. If you’re not doing it for your own benefit, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all. Give til it hurts doesn’t fit in this philosophy. You may give everything you have, but if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.
You may peg this uncharitable charity as (White) saviorism, or noblesse oblige, or do-gooderism. One of the best descriptions does not come from Buddhism (though it has been promoted in contemporary Buddhist circles: https://ny.shambhala.org/2018/05/20/rev-angel-kyodo-williams-why-your-liberation-is-bound-up-with-mine-podcast-194/) but from the Aboriginal Rights movement in Queensland, Australia.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.delivered by Lilla Watson at the UN Decade for Women Conference, 1985
You can see parallels to Dr. King’s “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I deeply believe that as well, but I feel the first quote speaks more intimately to our personal, rather than political or economic, connection. It’s not only that we are dependent on each other, it’s that we are each other, or rather that there is no other. It’s the Buddhist-inspired closing of a recent novel that made me weep: The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.
No person can save another, and none of us is deficient or in need of fixing. (That illumination came largely from the disability justice movement.) Providing for the needs of others should be like your left hand scratching your right: you aren’t debating whether your left hand should waste its energy, or thinking of how benevolent you’re being towards your right hand, or expecting thanks or praise from it. You’re just doing what needs to be done, doing what comes naturally.
I mean, that’s the goal.
I’m not even within shouting distance of that yet. Despite the words of my buddy.
The Gathering Place presents me with a particular dilemma, because it’s the only volunteering I’ve done in which there is no particular task that needs to be accomplished, no thing I’m supposed to do. I may help clean up, or restock supplies, or try to answer questions, or dish out or hand out lunches, but my “job” is to talk to people. It took me a while to accept that interaction as my primary task, but once I got comfy with it, I was faced with another quandary.
I love going to The Gathering Place. I mean, I love going to The Gathering Place, even though that love is not unaccompanied by less salutary feelings. Most days, it feels like Cheers. People greet me as I walk in each week, and seem genuinely happy to see me. Some hug, some elbow bump, some wave from across the room. Someone might engage me in intense conversation for an hour, or I might shoot the shit with 4 or 5 people on the patio during lunch. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like volunteering; it feels like I am the one being cared for.
I’ve had similar dilemmas at other volunteer gigs. I love the time I spend doing food prep for the meal delivery nonprofit – the kitchen is bright and sunny, everyone’s almost always in a good mood – but I see the results of my work. I’ve cut this many veggies, sealed this many meals, labeled this many cookies. There was no doubt I was accomplishing something. I could check that off the list. When I edit loans for Kiva, it’s almost nothing but checking off the list – I’m asked to edit 40 loans a month, and I do.
Completing the assignment clearly does not fit in with the philosophy I supposedly ascribe to, but as a citizen of capitalism it is the language I understand. It’s hard to shift to a different idiom. I struggle both with the purity of my intentions and the worthiness of my feelings of belonging and joy. If I were ascribing to the strictest Buddhist teachings on volunteerism and the like, I would not engage in any of these activities at all, not until I had reached some stage of enlightenment – the idea that the best thing you can do for the world is to work on yourself. I can hang with that to a point. I do believe that there are massive amounts of harm done when people engage with social or political causes out of anger or self-righteousness or ego. (Look at the racism of various Feminist movements, the violence of some people who stand in opposition to violence, the infantalization of group after group of exploited people that we seek to “help.”) But let’s be realistic: there are, what, 7 or 8 enlightened people in the world? And so much work that needs to be done.
For me, it’s a matter of continually checking in on my motivation, and trying to adjust when it veers into icky territory. The work that I value and enjoy the most is also the most emotionally risky. When I first started at The Gathering Place there was an encampment across the alley, and a lot more fights and antagonism and overdoses. Even now, it scares me to some degree to engage with people I don’t know, because of the ego hit if they don’t respond or respond with disdain; and I feel helpless and useless in the face of others’ pain and delusions. When I participate in Restorative Justice conferences (elsewhere), I always have to prep by telling myself I can only do the best I can, I’m not going to ruin anyone’s life, etc. But I still have that fear that I won’t really contribute to their personal or community healing, that I’ll sound preachy or out of touch. I’ve learned to simply accept my apprehensions and dive in.
A recent Restorative Justice participant shined a light on the purpose beautifully. He said that in all the months since he’d been arrested and interacted with his lawyer and made trips to court and paid fines, this was the only Human element of the process. He felt seen and heard for the first time. I think that’s the point of The Gathering Place, too. It doesn’t seem like much, but for some people – poor people, incarcerated & post-incarcerated people, addicted people – their humanity is undermined daily. Somewhat ironically, loosening my grip on the ego that sets me apart from these folks is the path to helping them get a better hold of their own individuality and humanity. Not so ironically, when they can see their own value, they may be more likely to value the humanity in others.
books: I am a fan both of How Can I Help? by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman, and, for different reasons, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.