I was invited to a poetry reading tonight featuring a Black poet who earned a law degree from Yale after spending nine years behind bars. The event was presumably about his experiences, ways of changing the current system, and establishing a brighter future for Black citizens. Prior to the event, I met up with a friend at a fast food chain, and we ate as quickly as we could in order to make it to the poetry reading on time. As we ravenously consumed our dinner, a Black man approached our table and asked if I could spare him a meal. I apologized and sent him on his way, as I typically do when people ask me for spare change, some assistance, or in this case, a meal.
The refusal was immediate, instinctive, done as easily as brushing off a pestering child. He left, and I spent the rest of the evening wondering: how hypocritical was this? To discuss broad ideas and rail against an abstract Injustice-with-a-capital-I, to pin blame on CEOs and “the system” while not offering even a penny to actually assist someone immediately in need, what was I actually accomplishing?
Religiously, I hold myself to some stringent standards regarding personal habits and lifestyle, but giving—especially to individuals—has always been an obstacle. Buddhist scriptures often laud the ability to give anything that anybody asks for, but as someone who grew up without very much to give, it has always been difficult to train myself to be more generous towards strangers.
Certainly, many of my peers are in a better position to give than I am. They have far much more wealth than I do, many many times more than what my family has ever earned, and it is easy to relegate responsibility to others. At the same time though, there’s a personal element to generosity. I am frustrated that I didn’t give. Disappointed. I felt ashamed that I had sent him away with nothing and could offer no help to his hunger. I may not be well off, but I was certainly better off than him.
In the grand scheme of things, I believe that making a positive impact on the world must be done on two levels: on an overarching, systemic level; and on an individual, interpersonal level. To dream of changing the system is indeed praiseworthy, but along the way there are many opportunities to help others as well. The impact of these two are certainly not the same. The latter is far more limited in scope than the former, yet to the person giving, it is perhaps the latter which provides a direct experience into generosity, an act of goodness which brings immediate result.
In giving to organizations, I often have trouble deciding which to give to. Do I plant a tree? Restock a food bank? Provide education to students? All of these are worthy causes, and to donate to any of them would be great. But also in all of these cases, the giving is not direct. The money is aggregated, pooled into the salaries of employees, into the rent and overhead for offices, and then used to accomplish a mission. Tonight, I had the opportunity to give directly. My $10 would have undoubtedly fed one man for one meal and given him a full stomach with which to bear the evening chill. And I squandered that opportunity.
One of the lessons I will never forget when I first became a Buddhist was to never waste an opportunity to do a good deed. Thinking about it, I am not asked for help every single day. I am not overly burdened by people asking for food. Over the past year, this is the first time I’ve been asked to provide a meal to someone. Not cash, not change, but just meal. The last time this happened was one summer when I was in high school. That was nearly 10 years ago. At the time, I happened to have an apple and a box of snacks in my backpack. When a man approached me for food, I was able to pull it out and give him by snack for the day without a second thought. Yet today, I faltered and refused a plea for help.
It is easy to rationalize my behavior by saying something like “this isn’t my responsibility” or “I don’t even know him.” However, as someone actively trying to improve this world, there is nothing beyond the bounds of my responsibility. To help a person is to help a person, regardless of who they are.