Is Charity Ever Selfless?

November 6, 2012


Giving alms outside the temple.

Everyone knows being selfless feels good. But if you give charity to feel good about yourself, then is it still selfless? I know I have struggled with this. Toronto is full of public buildings named after donors. Plaques tell us who gave that park bench, those theatre seats, that brick at the opera. It often feels like giving charity is an expression of vanity. And another thing, if giving selflessly means leaving behind the ego, then is it to be done robotically, without heart?

I have began to volunteer for a charity that helps people living with HIV/AIDS and we are putting together a Christmas event where we hope to give away door prizes to as many attendees as possible. This means we the committee have to go knocking on business doors to ask for gift certificates, entrance passes, good and services. Most within the committee declined to help with this task, so I stepped up. I sent out letters, e mails, telephoned, asked in person as many businesses as I felt appropriate. The committee was impressed by the sheer number of organizations I had approached. They asked me: “Don’t you feel ashamed asking for donations? What if they turn you down, don’t you feel rejected?”

I was startled by their insecurity. I replied that no I was not ashamed to ask for donations because I was not begging for myself. I was doing so on behalf of others, and so my pride was not on the line. Therefore, when a business rejected a request, their rejection was not personal. I did not feel disrespected, hence I was not shy about asking.

It occurred to me that I had hit upon the essence of selflessness. The very motive of my action (asking for donation) was without personal gain or profit, that is the essence of selflessness. Sure, I employed all of my abilities in securing donations, this ‘me’ was very much involved in that, but it was my intent which had no trace of ‘me’ in it. And it felt very liberating.

Gone was the anxiety of rejection, gone was my natural shyness, all my fears and insecurities. I am sure if I were in the unfortunate position of begging for change on the streets I would not be so bold and fearless.

I had a similar experience at the homeless shelter. Years ago, in my lost youth, I had undertaken a course in hairdressing. I had dedicated a year to it but after I graduated I found working with live clients caused me to have debilitating panic. I would sweat profusely, I was unable to focus on the haircut. I was fired after just one week at the salon. I gave up hairdressing– until now. Homeless men are discriminated against by barber shops. Some charge them exorbitantly more in order to discourage them from coming into their shops. Barbers fear for the sanitation of their chairs and equipment, and the risk of infecting other clients.

So I asked the homeless shelter where I give out food if I should offer free haircuts to the men. They were delighted. When my first client sat in the chair I was worried that the old panic would rear its ugly head. But I need not have worried. I found myself calm and in full control. Even when the men asked me to do something I not done before (trim a beard) I felt no apprehension. I simply did the best I could, without regards for his praise or complaints. Whether I am thanked or not is irrelevant. If my contribution is recognized that is incidental, but that is not my motive for doing these haircuts.

And that was the main difference from before: I think I used to get nervous because I was cutting hair for praise and compliments. I  never feared the clients themselves, I had feared their disapproval, their displeasure. Now, with the homeless men, I cut hair so that they feel cared for, so that others may treat them more kindly, perhaps some of them might even land a job because of their scrubbed-up appearance. This time the haircuts are all about them. The intent is selfless, hence no panic, no sweat.

The best part about this feeling of selfless intent is that it is a transferable skill. It can be applied to any daily tasks where I experience panic and anxiety. By identifying and removing the need for approval from my routines, I find I am more content, happier. It is a simple internal adjustment no one else needs to know about. It is my little secret. Well, powerful little secret.

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2 Responses to “Is Charity Ever Selfless?”

  1. I believe it was Ayn Rand who said that their is no such thing as altruism – that the only reason we do good for others is because it makes us feel good. That our most selfless deeds have a selfish base. That does not make them less valuable. In fact, it is a good thing that we feel good doing good, rather than just doing good because we think that’s what we “should” do.

    • Though there are instances where we do good simply because it needs to be done, it is the right thing to do. The key difference is the feeling good comes after the action and not before. There is no anticipation of feeling good.

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