One City

By Stillman Brown

The first part of last night’s Heartcore Dharma class at the Interdependence Project was spent discussing dana, or the quality and practice of generosity. This got me thinking about one aspect of generosity with which I have shamefully little experience: charitable giving. 
A quick search reveals that while charitable giving is not recession proof, it hasn’t dropped as precipitously as the stock market. There are explanations for this: the truly wealthy (as in, you have a foundation named after you that appears after the credits roll on a PBS show) can afford to continue supporting their favorite causes, and most major donors operate on a 3-year profit cycle, meaning they lag behind market trends. But what about individuals? I can only offer my own experience as a miserly non-giver.

I’ve always admired people who gave double-digit percentages of their income to charity, but  the first and only time I’ve given more than a hundred dollars to anything was last year, during the Presidential campaign. I fed Barack Obama’s website about $150. I remember reading somewhere that his campaign burned through about a million dollars a day. I’m still waiting for a personal phone call from the man himself and tickets to an exclusive gala event.

Before that, I’d given about $50 to the ACLU, under $20 to Human Rights watch, $10 to the NPR show This American Life (in two installments), and purchased a Radiohead single for $2.00, the proceeds of which went to a British veterans’ charity. Unless buying entire shipping containers of Girl Scout thin mint cookies qualifies, I’ve not done well in the charity department. Why?
For one, I’m not alone in feeling resistant to simply giving money away without having a tangible sense of it being put to good use. Exactly how will the Red Cross use my donation? Probably for sexy nurse parties at one of their posh facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. Donate? Nice try. 
But mostly it comes down to a sensation of scarcity, a default belief that I don’t have enough resources – for managing challenges, or looking after someone in my life who is having a difficult time and needs a lot of care, or even just getting uptown to see a friend. I always need more sleep, more time, more space.
It’s not just an anxiety confined to the mind: I can feel it in my lower chest. If I’m asked for something that requires time or emotional capital, an internal contraction occurs – I feel myself recoil a little, as if my body is saying, “No, that’s too much.” It’s as irrational as it is real, and it’s the same feeling in relationships, charities, or when someone asks me for spare change on the street. 
Oddly, this sensation doesn’t extend to gift-giving. I spend a lot at Christmas time and on Birthdays for my family and friends. Something about the pleasure of buying and giving stuff is exempt. Well played, Mad Men.  
Generosity probably has something to do with an evolutionary feedback loop related to giving and trust in small groups. It’s easy to give to people we know intimately because we trust them to return the care. It’s harder to see that, collectively, we are interdependent and will only save our species (or not) by breaking down divisions of self and other.
I wonder if I’m alone in this. And I’m interested to see how my meditation practice will affect the reflex of withdrawing from situations that call for generosity. I think it’s lessened in recent years as my capacity grows and I realize that things like love and energy are not finite resources to be parceled out sparingly. 
In the meantime, I hope New York University will keep sending me tasteful invitations to alumni charity events. They’ve found a nice home as insulation at the bottom of my kitchen trash can.
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