Balancing the give and take
Just recently I was reading about Tracy Cosgrove, an English woman from Manchester who now lives in Scotland and was last year named Scotswoman of the Year for the work she does around the world in helping orphaned children. It might seem to be a little confusing, but it was an inspiring story and I was struck particularly by one thing she said, “People often ask me why the children in the photos are always smiling. They can’t believe homeless kids have anything to smile about. I always tell them that the first thing I do is to put a smile on their faces _ my children smile because they’re happy!”
Putting a smile on the faces of orphaned children is something this lady manages to do particularly well with a combination of a Super Mom personality and what appears to be an unusual ability of getting practical help from business organisations and anyone with something to give. “I don’t know what it is, but people seem to want to keep on giving me things for my projects. Whatever it is that motivates them, I don’t want them to stop,” she was reported as saying.
All over the world there are people like Tracy Cosgrove who devote their lives to helping other people. Here in Thailand a few weeks ago we saw the 15th International AIDS Conference and we were reminded of the many organisations and individuals whose life’s work is involved one way or another in the increasingly important fight against the HIV/AIDS virus and its debilitating and eventual fatal effects.
Helping others, bringing joy into their lives, is a full time job for some, just as others for example enter the monkhood. Does this mean then, that the majority of us who occupy ourselves with what we call the real world are somehow unworthy? Obviously not. We humans can only survive in a practical sense because of our diversity. Even in the simplest of societies, after all, there must be a division of responsibilities, the hunters and providers, the home builders, the elders, and of course the children. We cannot all live our lives in the monkhood.
But even in the hustle and bustle, the hurly burly of our daily lives we can all try putting a smile on the faces of others. It might be by a good deed, a thoughtful act, or simply a kind word. Lighting up our lives and the lives of others with smiles has to be good. But is it enough? Shouldn’t we be doing more to help those in need, giving more, doing more in a practical way? Is there a simple answer to this question which surely nags at us every time we see the imploring look on the face of the beggar and justify ignoring the outstretched hand by telling ourselves it’s all part of a cynical scam? Yes, there is an answer, and it really is simple enough. If we feel sincerely that we want to do more then we should go ahead and do it. Action, and not words.
If, however, we do something to help others because we feel it is our duty, or worse, because we see it as a means to make merit, then it will have no worth. There is also another danger we must be aware of. It’s a state of mind that could well be called an affliction, I describe it as the Selfish Pleasure of Giving Syndrome (SPGS). It is probably called something different in psychiatric medicine, but the meaning is clear enough. People with SPGS typically devote themselves to a cause while at the same time giving little heed to their own welfare. They do indeed work selflessly for the benefit of others, but the selfish bit comes in because they actually want to be recognised and eventually lauded for what they do. Right action, wrong motive.
For an example of right action, right motive, I’m reminded of another story told by Tracy Cosgrove. She apparently found herself seated at a dinner party next to a middle-aged business couple. Tracy soon steered the conversation to the needs of the orphanage in Chiang Mai that she works closely with. “I told them that the most urgent requirement was for sets of underwear and swimwear for around forty children from the ages of around three to thirteen and added that I would be grateful if they knew anybody who could help,” she explained. Tracy went on to relate how the wife said they could probably do something which Tracy took to mean that probably nothing would happen.
A few days later, excited helpers at the orphanage called her to report that they had just taken delivery of 76 large boxes, each packed with brand new swimwear and underwear. “The couple I sat next to just happened to own a manufacturing company that makes swimwear and underwear, I could not have chosen better dining companions had I tried,” said Tracy. Right action, right motive indeed.
Back to us in our busy work-a-day world where giving often gives way to grudging, grabbing and grasping. What chance does generosity and caring about others have here? Very little, unless we slow down, step back a few paces and remind ourselves it doesn’t have to be like that. Yes, we often need to be single minded to be successful in our chosen endeavours. Being single minded however, does not mean also being ruthless. It is always possible to manage our time so we have enough to give to others.
Is there anything else we can do to help us slowdown, get a fix on reality, to set this complicated world in some kind of perspective? Yes, there is and I am about to plug a solution that has long worked for me and which continues to allow me to understand myself. OK, so it is a never ending process of discovery, of analysing, of learning on ever more complex levels, but that is why it is so intriguing. I am, of course, referring to the mindfulness we acquire from Vipassana meditation. The mindfulness that brings us closer to the truth of Dhamma and which among many other benefits of meditation, can help us understand the real value of giving.