Can a person be generous and selfish at the same time?
Are those even opposites? Are they on a spectrum? Or do they co-exist? Or something else entirely?
Does the very meaning of both of those ways of being conflict?
If I don’t accept someone else’s generosity (which I do quite often) is that selfish? Does it cause harm? I think it may do both.
In a way it’s stealing that person’s ability to be generous too.
I’m really not sure that there’s an answer. I find myself starting to see just how selfish I am as I move towards wanting to become a more generous person. Generous as in one of those people who loves unconditionally and gives unconditionally.
And yet, even in putting qualifications on it, I’m already limiting generosity.
I’ve been thinking about generosity in relation to money in particular. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who would take people in if they needed help or a place to stay. Am I? Can I be?
At least a year ago I consciously decided to notice my responses with homeless people I meet. What happens? Sometimes I do give money or food. More often I don’t. A handful of times I’ve felt as though the money just moves out of my hand and into theirs as if guided and I think, “I can always make another $8, maybe he can’t”. Usually though my thoughts start to move towards wondering if I could make it living on the streets and where I would go. I usually decide that I’d figure out some way to survive. I then start to calculate – how much do I have in my back account? How long will that last me? Is it enough to survive? For how long? How long have I got? What happens when it runs out? And then I start to wonder – do I give to one person? Or everyone? Will it really make a difference? How do I choose? I’d much rather give to organizations that then help these people. Yes, I do that once a year. That’s what I’ll keep doing.
All the machinations of the mind taking over and moving me out of the situation at hand so that I don’t have to actually do anything at all. I’m no longer present, and am instead lost in a stream of fantasy, working around the edges of my own fear and avoiding reality.
Internally I feel myself constrict. I stop breathing. I hold on. Hold on to what I have. Don’t share. Contract. Keep it. Stop it from moving. Flowing. Don’t give. I need it. There’s not enough.
Every time I do this I buy into the belief of scarcity and the fear of not surviving as a result.
What about abundance?
When I was a kid there was one homeless man in our town (that we knew of anyway). The kids called him “Jim the Bum”. Likely because the adults did too. The story I remember was that he had a promising hockey career and turned to drugs and his parents disowned him. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s what I remember.
How’s that for learning about unconditional love? And what happens when you’re struggling?
We were taught to stay away. Why? To stay safe? Maybe. Was he dangerous? Or just needing help? Because people were afraid? Of what? And is that fear still with me?
About a year or so ago I was on my way to dance class after work and there was a pregnant woman at the top of the subway steps asking for money. My heart went out to her and yet I still walked past, trying to get to class. She stayed with me though – very strongly. When I got home I wished I had a spare room or some way to help her. I wished I could take her in or do something other than just giving her money. I decided that the next time I saw her (both hoping there would be a next time and also believing there wouldn’t be) I would ask if she wanted to come with me to have a meal. We could talk. Maybe she needed someone to talk to. I could do that. I could listen over a meal.
I didn’t see her for weeks though I looked for her every time I went to class. Then one day there she was. All the blood felt like drained out of my heart down into my feet. I slowed and nearly stopped. I wanted to open my mouth. I remembered the plan to take her for a meal. I saw images of us sitting at a table. I looked around for a restaurant. And then I didn’t want to be late for class. I didn’t want to miss class. I walked past and then wanted to turn around. I stopped and turned back towards her and then turned away again. At least three times. I wanted to skip class and go back and ask her.
If I were to reference a famous couple here, it seems as though I too would have turned Mary and Joseph away.
Is it a fear of not being safe and secure? Of not having? Trust?
Maybe it’s not so much about being generous or selfish, maybe it’s that I’ve started to see more clearly my deep fear of scarcity and how much of my life that has driven. How many decisions it’s made for me. How often I’ve stayed in painful situations or suffering out of that fear and deep-rooted belief in scarcity. Maybe I’d like to let go of that fear – to live differently. Maybe that’s selfish too. Maybe not.
I was recently in a Deep Ecology workshop where I got to play the role of an ancestor speaking to my descendant – and telling her about the current state of the world and also how we got out of it.
I found myself remembering and sharing that when I was eight or nine I decided emphatically to never bring a child into this world. That there was no point because the world was doomed. Today I realized that right around that age I saw the first images of war on the TV. I saw the tanks rolling by. The bombs at night. I had heard of other wars in the past, but this made it more real. I wasn’t even living it in person and can’t imagine the impact of doing so. Was it fighting over scarcity? Next I remembered seeing so many ads for World Vision and I would always wonder why I’d been born where I had been and not where these kids were born. How did that work? I honestly remember being confused that the people in the ad had enough emotion left to cry when they didn’t seem to have anything else. I saw scarcity in images. I heard it all around me, coupled with fear.
Being taught to never be like Jim. To get as much as you can because “you never know” to take care of yourself because no one else will do it and when you can’t take care of yourself, no one else will do it. To live in isolation and not ask for help (but somewhere in there being told to help others – if they met some unknown criteria and then only indirectly). It’s confusing even now to think about. How was that all meant to work?
It never occurred to me to see life as abundant.
It never occurred to me to see the belief in scarcity as a belief.
It’s the same with knowledge. As a kid and for a good chunk of my life, I’d hide it, hold onto it. I learned and believed that being smart was the key to surviving – so it must be kept scarce too. Don’t let others get it – this “intelligence” or knowledge. I remember hiding my answers behind a 3-sided blue folder that stood up on my desk – my arms covering the pages as I hunched over them. No one was going to take it from me. They weren’t going to get what I had. It was mine.
Only now I see that’s now how knowledge works. Give it away! Let it circulate and flow and evolve and cycle back through.
Much later, when I decided I might one day want to have a baby, I was gripped with fear that they’d run out of them. That all of a sudden the supply of babies would run out. Seriously. There wouldn’t be any more left for me to have one too. That someone will turn off the valve like they were turning off a faucet. The flow would end. That’s honestly the image I could see. Completely illogical right? Yes. I knew that too and also couldn’t quite believe it was false. Apply the fear of scarcity here and it’s a completely logical statement. (I want to be mindful here of the many people who have difficulty conceiving or can’t and how hard that can be and to not discount your experience).
Seeing that makes me see how illogical the other scenarios sound too. It’s all part of the same fear. So why does only one of those situations seem irrational?
It brings to mind the yamas of ahimsa (causing no harm) and aparigraha (non-grasping or non-clinging) and in particular Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.39 (aparigrahasthairye janma kathanta sambodhah) which is translated in many different ways. Three that I like are:
“Becoming established in non-greediness gives you knowledge of the how and why of birth (your own, others, and the world’s)” –Translation by Swami Nirmalananda Saraswati
“When the inner light of intelligence illumines the state of mind that has firmly rejected all greed and there is contentment with what life brings unsolicited, there arises knowledge of the mysteries of life and its why and how”. –Translation and interpretation by Swami Venkatesananda
“Acknowledging abundance (aparigraha) we recognize the blessings in everything and gain insights into the purpose for our worldly existence.” –Translation by Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga.
I like that aparigraha can be interpreted as non-greediness and also as the ability to acknowledge abundance. Two ways of viewing the same concept – almost as if the antidote of non-greed is seeing that there is abundance.
In acknowledging abundance and practicing gratitude for what is, eventually greed may fall away. Clinging to the fear of scarcity may fall away. I think that it already has started to.
There’s still more to be worked through like becoming trapped and stuck in the emotions that come up when faced with having or not having. Giving or receiving. Choosing to withhold or limit or block in order to keep ahold of something. To have. I wonder if I can fully trust in the abundance of life to the point that I no longer believe in scarcity. It’s all really just sensations in the body. Responses. The cutting off and holding that happens inside because of this fear is then manifested externally as well. Attaching itself to money or possessions or knowledge. Attaching itself to limiting life. When it’s all just sensations and as those sensations can shift (and have) from fear to feeling full – to feeling that my cup runneth over – things shift externally as well.
There is evidence of abundance surrounding me daily – internally and externally. I only have to observe nature to see evidence of abundance. Is that true of everywhere? Am I speaking from a place of privilege? Yes, probably. And yet, the more I practice seeing the abundance in all that is (and not what could be or might be), the more I trust in the flow of the world. The more I give away, the less I have to carry. The more I let go, the more authentic I can be in giving. I see how these sensations don’t seem to come up as much as they used to with friends, family, people I know. More often than not it just flows. Inside and out. Without thought or conditions.
And still, I wonder what more will fall away if I can shift this relationship to scarcity and come at every interaction as though abundance abounds. Will my relationship to generosity shift? Will I still be so selfish? Will I find even more corners of fear? If I can choose to look at all that is around and all that I get to be a part of by being here at this moment and be grateful does that then is that enough?
I’m starting to see that it’s all energy – money, knowledge, life force – whatever it is and it moves and circulates and has a current all its own. It goes where it goes and it’s futile and naïve for me to think I can contain or hold onto any of it. To limit it and try to keep it just means I’m limiting and containing myself in the struggle.
I’m the one who becomes constricted in those moments of greed and clinging. I’m the one who is trapped in the fear of not having. Is it selfish to want to be free of that? Perhaps.