Saturday, August 18, 2007

Charity and the Dao

I've gotten a couple obviously heart-felt responses to a throw-away remark I made in my last post, so I thought it would be a good idea to put some time and effort into parsing out what I really believe on the subject. So here's the result:


I have also developed a very jaundiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts.


Like most peripheral comments, this one doesn't explain itself in much detail. But it is not a position that I take lightly, that I adopted willingly, nor is any sort of personal innovation to Daoism.

I have always had a very strong charitable impulse. (In fact I still do.) This has not involved simply tossing a little extra in the collection plate at church or writing a cheque when the "United Way" comes calling at work. Instead, I have literally tried to live the life suggested by the New Testament where I give to the poor a substantial part of my financial worth and personal life. Amongst other things, this has involved inviting total strangers into my home.

One formative experience involved a young woman who I met at the university campus where I was an undergraduate. She looked hungry so I bought her lunch. When we got talking, she said that she was living in a tent at a local conservation area and that she had no work. I happened to be alone in a house that I was fixing up for the summer, so I offered her room and board for the summer in exchange for help. She gladly moved in.

It was a lesson in life. She was a very good looking young woman who had worked as a stripper until (so she said) that she had witnessed a stabbing that so frightened her that she quit her job. I assumed that the summer residency would be a "leg up" so she could find a job and get a place of her own. Instead, she decided that it would be a permanent arrangement. After I pointed out to her that she needed to get a job and that I was supporting her by doing the home renovation gig plus a graveyard shift as a minimum wage janitor, she called these "chump change" jobs. In contrast, she suggested that her career path was to get pregnant and live on child support (this was how she was raised.)

When I had to kick her out of the house it was very traumatic. She got a gig stripping at a local bar. Then she did get pregnant and ended up being an absolute disaster as a parent (I met the parent of a baby-sitter who was totally freaked that the government would not remove the child from her home.) The woman went through a period of heroin abuse and ended up in a somewhat stable relationship in another town. Years later I met her at a wake where it became pretty clear to me that she hasn't changed much since I first met her.

I met another woman when I was still attempting to live a "normal" (i.e. not as a Daoist recluse) life. She had a child from another guy and she had decided to devote her life to raising this baby. The pregnancy had been the result of some sort of minimal relationship but she refused to have an abortion. At the same time, she refused to let the father even see the fruit of his loins but was bound and determined that he was going to help support her and the boy for a long time.

This woman had been trained as a legal secretary and had actually worked in the field. But after having her son, she decided that it would be wrong to not exclusively breast feed him or wean him before the age of at least two. As you might imagine, this dramatically reduced employment opportunities. As a result, she ended up having to rely upon the state for subsistence.

I also had a relationship with a woman who worked as a waitress at a local bar and owned a house. She had a degree in fine art and a teacher's certificate. But there always seemed to be a reason why working at a regular teaching job simply wasn't good enough for her. (She did do a temporary gig at a special program teaching adults, but the funding disappeared and I don't think she even tried to switch to an ordinary program.) She had come from quite a wealthy family, but for one reason or another, she didn't get along with them and had severed all ties.

After I left this woman, she developed a form of mental illness that rendered her unable to make a living anymore. But because she had never been willing to work at a job with benefits, there was no long-term disability program she could plug into. And because she had severed all ties with her family, she ended up with no safety net, formal or informal, to plug into. When she goes off her meds, she sometimes comes to my door in a very agitated and quite confused state. I used to give her money, but I found out that the welfare agency is quite concerned about her but she refuses to allow them to help her.

My heart bleeds for these people. I always has bled for them. But I came to some significant decisions as a result of my lame attempts to help them.

First of all, they are in the mess they find themselves in not because of a cruel world, but because of the values that they hold dear render them incapable of thriving in the world around us. The first woman has an inflated sense of what she is worth in the world---to the point where she will live in dire poverty before she will demean herself by working for the less than inflated salary of a stripper. The second believes that the entire world should turn on a dime for her ovaries (e.g. refusing to have an abortion, expecting the man to pay child support, the government to support her extreme views on parenthood, etc.) The last painted herself into a corner by having such an extreme vision of personal freedom that she left herself with no "safety-net" for when she got sick.

I also used to give money to beggars on the street (there are a lot in my town.) I considered it a "blessing" to have so much money that I could do this. I never asked myself whether or not these folks were "worthy" because I thought that that was between them and God, and not something for me to concern myself with. I noticed very quickly, however, that the panhandlers figured out that I was someone who always gave and sometimes would give a lot. The result was that I found myself being singled-out for attention. In fact, people started coming to my door. The last straw was when I was having a little bar-b-que and a fellow who was obviously suffering from a very bad drug problem "gate crashed" the event.

The point wasn't that I am some sort of prig who wants to keep these people "in their place", but rather that they were beginning to threaten my hold on middle-class existence. Middle-class life requires a lot of things: financial security, home ownership, a secure neighbourhood, etc. Being connected with the "under-class" threatens all of this. If your neighbourhood starts going downhill, you end up with worse and worse people moving into the homes around you. And this raises the danger of crime, lowers the equity in your house, reduces your freedom from things like loud noises late at night, increases vandalism, etc. I am not a rich man, and the only reason why I own my own home is because I have been very careful and frugal. By involving myself with the desperate class, I was threatening my position. (I noticed this because my "good" neighbours absolutely freaked when my ex with mental problems started hanging around the house---they could tell instinctively that this was a bad thing for everyone.)

A man who jumps into the water to save another has to understand that he runs the risk of being dragged down and drowned himself.

I had a lot of conversations with my last partner over these issues. She grew up in Bombay and literally swam in an ocean of beggars from an early age. Like me, she is very concerned about poverty and has spent a great deal of her life devoted to doing "good works". But she doesn't have that same sense of guilt that I feel because I am not living the life that Jesus recommends. (Which is odd because she is the Christian, not me.) Her very wise answer to me, however, was to say "Are you doing this to help these people or to make yourself feel good?"

This really got me thinking and it turned out that I was just as much a victim of my values system as the people I have mentioned above. I thought that giving is a solution, when it clearly is not. This comes about because when I see them, I see myself. But they are not me, and I am not them. Unlike the first woman, I learned early in my life that we have to eat "bitter" in our lives. If we don't do it consciously through things like working for "chump change", we will do it unconsciously through things like heroin addiction. I also believe that whether or not we believe that our present society values children as it should, we have to make compromises with economic reality. I also have decided that "no man is an island" and we need to maintain good social ties with family and institutions (like a good job) if we are going to survive the groin kicks that life inevitably throws at us.

I wish that these people in my life had learned the same lessons that I have. And I still help with folks if I think that it will genuinely be of value. But until they decide to discard the values system that is holding them down, it will simply be pouring sand down a rat hole. And my belief is that Christian charity is simply yet another one of these destructive values that I have had to discard if I am going to live a life in harmony with the Dao.

Please note. I am not making value judgements about these people. They are just like everyone else---they have good qualities and bad. Indeed, I still love some of them. But their core values have rendered them incapable of thriving in the modern world. And until they make the decision to jettison these values and adopt ones that are a better "fit", they are always going to suffer problems. Short of having the state stand at their side and force them to make better decisions; or to give them so much money that they can be totally feckless and not suffer any consequences; there is nothing society can do to protect them from their dysfunctional values system.

Lest people think that I am some sort of modern nihilist, I would point out that I have read translations of Daoist texts who attempt to make this very point. As I recall (I don't have the text at my finger tips) one story involved a Daoist who opened a box that was filled with demons that personified all the impediments to realization. The last one was a child that represented all the altruistic impulses that tie someone to the "land of dust". It was pointed out in the commentary that this is the most dangerous demon that a Daoist has to overcome.


The Imugi said...

Thanks for sharing those experiences, Bill----as always, you make an excellent point.

In look at Rachel's comment in the previous entry and comparing it to the perspective you offer in this entry, I think the key is balance. Just from going off the Dao De Jing, the first of Laozi's three treasures is "ci" , which is often translated as "compassion" or "love". That clearly is something to nurture, however repeatedly we find in the Dao De Jing the injuction that "knowing when to stop" is the key to avoiding calamity. Thus we must temper our compassion with understanding when to stop. There comes a time when we have done all that we can, and it is simply up to the other person to carry things further. The problem is, of course, that it can be difficult to tell when we've given enough and when we're doing too much...

Bill Hulet said...

The ability to know "when to stop" is exactly the sort of thing that comes spontaneously from within and cannot be easily taught. This is where we get to that mysterious "from within" quality that Zhuangzi illustrates with his famous example of the butcher.

I just want to emphasize once again that I am not saying that these people do not "deserve" charity. Instead, I am saying that lack of charity is not the cause of these people's problems, nor will it "cure" it.

Part of the realization that people are free to follow their own path is to realize that we are powerless to help those who refuse to be helped---.

kasturi said...

bill, i feel you articulated well the experiences i used to have before i came to similar conclusions.

if you have the time and inclination, i would appreciate it very much if you could recall and share with us the title of the daoist text about the monk who opened the box of obstacles. That text sound like it is very very wise indeed. Thank you!

Bill Hulet said...


I'm away from my academic library right now, but when I get back to it, I'll try to find the text. I think it might be a translation and quote that was cited in John Blofeld's book Taoism: the Road to Immortality.

SoundHunter said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your response to my response, hehe :)

I hope it's ok to disagree with you here, with the understanding that I have been reading your blog for awhile with interest and respect, however I have critical thoughts regarding even this explanation.

From what I am reading here, you are attached to the outcomes, the results, of your efforts to help. If the people who you help do not shape up as you would like to see them do, then you feel that your help wasn't helpful at all and it upsets you. You seem to be despairing for them, when I don't see that as particularly necessary, but it is indicative of you helping for the wrong reasons, and being hurt by your own misguided reasons for helping (which you indicated as well, with your feelings of guilt etc). Is it complicated in these examples because they where women? Did you have more complicated hopes for them, because of the complications of attraction?

You have some bitterness towards their choices, for instance, the idea that nursing a child for 2 years is extreme. Well, getting personal again, I nursed my first child until she was 2, and hope to nurse my second one longer. According to the United Nations "Continued breast feeding after six months, for up to two years of age or beyond, combined with safe and appropriate complementary feeding, is the optimal approach to child feeding, officials say." Your lack of understanding of barricading has led you to conclude that this woman is practising some extremist form of parenting, while I would see it as her doing the best job she can as a parent, the unfortunate part is that she's single in a society that has ruined families with the nuclear family structure and she has no safety net other than the public services available to her, and I think for the good of society that we should offer funding to single mothers so that they can send maximum time with their young babies. Why would your heart bleed for her, why would you see your help as having failed, what is so wrong, with her getting support so that she can optimally feed her child? The only reason I can see, is that you expected a certain outcome as a result of your help, but that is your problem, not hers, and it doesn't indicate to me that your help failed, only that you feel that it did because things didn't go as you would've liked them to, based on your understanding of things which may, or may not be a well rounded understanding, such as in the example of breastfeeding. But helping others shouldn't be about things going as you would like them to, not when helping is done in order to truly help the other person.

Helping people is not an all or nothing practise. If you choose not to help others because it is too upsetting for you, or because you'd rather focus on your practise that's groovy, but I still disagree that helping others is a useless endeavor because of any of the examples you've provided. I think the errors where that you did too much and expected too much, and were too deeply involved in satisfying your own needs to help for the sake of helping. (which you recognize when you say "Are you doing this to help these people or to make yourself feel good?") As I expressed in my other response to you, most people who helped me likely did not realize they where helping me at the time. I continued on my path of self destruction for years before I got out of that life. I have gone back to thank those who helped me when I could find them, but sometimes I couldn't, many of them I have no idea how to find, or what their full names are, but I thank them in my heart. I did bad things to some of them, I stole from them, insulted them, hated them. But they helped me anyways, and got nothing in return, and certainly not the satisfaction that they had been the ones to turn my life around. But they WHERE helpful, each person who helped me along the way helped me to build up my strength, reserves, standards, hopes etc and in some cases, helped me to avert death and serious destruction simply by offering a place for me to sleep at night.

As I said, I know little about Taoism, it's very new to me. But what appeals to me is the idea of stillness, though I can't say being still is something I'm any good at just yet. However, it seems that learning to be still is also learning to be a great listener, and great listeners have more to offer in the way of help than anything you listed as your ways of helping. Can you take a hurting friend to a quiet place and just listen to them? Listen to them with stillness, not opinions about the way they live their lives or spend their money or what have you? Can you offer a simple loving smile, uncomplicated with your judgements? I hope that I can do these things. I think they are the ticket to avoiding the emotional strife that I encounter in some relationships with other people. As little as I understand Taoism, it's what attracts me to it, the stillness, the simplicity. Those two concepts are fabulous tools for helping, from my limited understanding of them so far.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
Yeah, he's a Zen Buddhist. Great writer, and great inspirer, and world peace activist whose words are worth hearing. He also has interesting thoughts on the need for activists to be solid and peaceful inside before taking on the problems of the world. If you ever decide to venture out into environmental activism again, his words might be helpful to you. I'll try and find them when I have a chance.

Oh, and charity is in my opinion, the biggest positive thing that Christianity ever brought to the world...but I've benefited from it in my youth, so the other side of the coin of experience for you.

I sincerely hope I haven't offended you with my blunt, and probably too critical honesty.

Now I'm going to search your blog for reading recommendations :)

Best wishes,
~ Rachel

SoundHunter said...

Oh mother trucker, a spell checker changed the word breastfeeding into barricading in that post. I have no idea how vast your understanding of barricading is. haha.

Bill Hulet said...


Yes, of course you may disagree! I'll try to reply to your points below.

Yes, it's true that I am "attached" to outcomes. Primarily, this comes about because I feel that every choice I make is part of a zero sum game. That is to say, every time I put time or money into trying to help one person it is time and money that I am not using for something else. I have worked at the equivalent of two full-time jobs most of my life---one to pay the bills and the other to make the world a better place. I have also paid for a lot of my projects out of my own pocket. So every decision I make in my life is part of a calculus of where to put my scarce resources.

As to the breast feeding thing, it may be the case that it is a good thing to do so until a late age. But if it becomes a reason for not having a job and supporting one's self, then the person in question should ask herself about why she had to have the child in the first place and why she feels that the taxpayer should support her. One of my first memories is of that of my father putting up a lunch to got to work at a factory. At that time he was a dairy farmer who was milking cows, bailing hay, and working the graveyard shift at the vinegar works, plus hanging kiln in tobacco on the weekends. He never complained about paying taxes, but I never want to see the hard work of people like him squandered on people who are unwilling to make the hard choices that he took for granted. Again, we are back to the zero sum game---.

Yes, I used examples of women, but I could also give those of men. For example, I have another friend who is a brilliant academic, athelete, and who is an expert in conventional arms verification. Yet his radical Leftist politics have marginalized him and given him an excuse to life the life of a drug dealer. When he was put into jail the first time I didn't put any effort into trying to help him simply because I couldn't see the use in doing so.

The divide I see between Daoism and Christianity is that Daoism is based on the ideals of freedom and responsibility. You have the opportunity to do a lot of different things, but you have the responsibility to understand the consequences of your actions. (A friend calls me "old mister consequences" because I keep telling her "you can do whatever you want, but you have to accept the consequences".) Christianity is different because it is based on the idea that the world is illusory and all our actions on earth are only of value insofar as they "build up riches in heaven". Buddhism is much the same, only they talk about "merit".