Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Giving Works

Gift-wrapped cat
Something I read this morning set me thinking about social welfare programs - a comment that they so often do no good, sometimes seem to positively harm. Does that mean we shouldn't try?  I don't know.

The fact that humans exist messes with all life on this planet. Our big brains and tool-making capacity gives us a power a sweet little fox, say, may not have. A simple example, we can make more food than we need. We can store food, transport it. We can have compassion, we can even foster compassion in ourselves by deliberate spiritual practices, and maybe in others via teaching, maybe in our children.  

As I think about this I think about recent programs in which dentists with time to spare have set up free dentistry days, and been mobbed.  This happened here in Columbus, and more recently in another city where a whole lot of dentists banded together to give people the basic care needed so they would not be in pain - fillings, extractions, even root canals.  That so many people come to these events and were willing to wait all day for help is evidence of the desperate poverty that exists right here among us.

This is private giving.  I think it works better than systems like, say, first tax me, then use the money to create a bureaucracy to provide free dental care (but only to those who qualify), and so on.  That is, spontaneous giving can be less wasteful, more direct, more skillful, because the recipients want the care. 

But even private giving goes awry if we are not skillful.  Maybe you can think of examples that have happened to you.

So here I want to recount one of the generous, touching gifts that happened to me during my long recovery from my transplant.  I'm not going to, because there were a number of them, each a lovely surprise and exactly what I needed.  One was a book dropped off by a friend.  Others were gifts of homemade food, pretty elementary.  Each of these came from a woman who knew what someone needs in recovery, and knew how to give it in a way that didn't burden me or upset my rest.  Partly, that's learned cultural behavior, I suppose, manners.  Some gifts were from people I'd never expect that from, surprises. 

The only place I'm going with this is to contemplate how very nice individual caring and giving can be, how hard it is to devise a social system that works.  No line of argument here, just some thinking aloud.

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