Tuesday, May 8, 2012

giving and receiving

Yesterday, I found an orange plastic bag hung outside the porch door. Every year, the local post office puts out these bags that instruct those inclined to put in dried goods for distribution at one of the local shelters. Then, on a given Saturday, mail carriers who usually deliver mail donate their time and come around to collect the food.

This is an effort I always like to participate in. Food is straightforward stuff. Other benevolent giving opportunities always arouse my skeptic ... how much is being skimmed and by whom? When I worked at the newspaper, for example, the personnel department (now called "human resources") used to pass out United Way paperwork that would allow for a deduction from employee paychecks. I never did that, given the United Way's track record for dubious management practices. The United Way may have supported worthy causes, but I disliked giving them money that would be funneled too readily into paneled offices and manicured, smooth-talking executives.

But food is different. Only a truly hungry person or a very inventive conniver would steal boxes of spaghetti, cans of diced tomatoes, or bottles of apple sauce. And if someone is very hungry, I am happy to have them steal what I give.

Jesus is alleged to have said, "It is better to give than to receive." I don't care much whether Jesus said it or not, but I am mildly interested in the accuracy of the statement. I think maybe it is better neither to give nor to receive. Maybe it is better to do what you do anyway and stop expecting applause or opprobrium.

I like the post office food effort. I like giving what I can. It makes me feel good. I do not expect anything in return. The idea that anyone would link my donation to some imagined 'virtue' is offensive.

And yet ... I do not like being played for a sucker by those inclined to enforce and accrue and acclaim some virtue. I like trusting that the food will get to those in need, but I don't honestly know that it will. So, perhaps it is a balancing act ... not wanting to be suckered and yet honestly feeling a certain fulfillment and appropriateness in the activity of filling up the orange bag.

Don't people give all the time? I think they do. Every day, every moment, in every song or tear. For conversational purposes, there is talk of "giving" and "receiving," but in reality or experience, this is not the case. For conversational purposes, it's a dicey matter, giving and receiving. Zen Buddhists sometimes speak (Japanese-fashion) of the roles of "host" and "guest." It may be an interesting conversation, but the reality of life isn't like this ... or at least I don't think so.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was talking with Soen Nakagawa Roshi, one-time abbot of Ryutaku Monastery in Japan and a man considered somewhat eccentric by his colleagues in the Zen Buddhist world. We were standing over a low table on which there was a bowl of gingko nuts. I had helped gather and prepare the nuts for the informal gathering where we found ourselves and I told him conversationally about where the nuts had been gathered and how removing their outer, pulpy and smelly covering had been an adventure. I wasn't looking for a pat on the back ... it was just idle conversation. But when I finished talking, his hand shot down into the bowl between us, grabbed a fistful of nuts and held them out to me. I extended my hands to receive them. And after I had, he said simply, "As you gave them to me, so I give them to you. Do you understand?"

And there it was, for my money. Giving and receiving are not either different or separate. They simply are not two things ... nor even one thing either. It was just life, expressing itself. No virtue need apply. It was smooth as water flowing over a rock. Giving is receiving. Receiving is giving. And naming them just mucks around with what is true.

And what is true is enough to make anyone smile.

1 comment:

  1. I am what I yam...May 8, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    Some time ago when I was the sole custodian of my kids and they were still in school, we lived in well-to-do community but I was barely scraping by. I was very ill and we had fallen on hard times. There were occasions when I had to swallow my pride and go to the local food pantry to help feed the family. The pantry in our area would make up a set of boxes full of various food and give the "client" a number of boxes based on their family size. We were not able to pick and choose the variety of food we received so we would get all sorts of stuff.

    By and large, everything was useful and was gratefully consumed... except for one dreaded item. The dreaded "gift" was always packed at the bottom of the box as it came in humongous #10 cans.

    We would bring in our goods from the car, place the boxes on the kitchen floor and proceed to put everything away in its proper place. Invariably I, or one of the boys, would stumble across the "curse" from the food pantry... at least one #10 can of yams. A groan of disappointment would erupt from each discoverer and we would stash the cans at the bottom of the broom closet in the kitchen hallway.

    There was no way anybody was ever going to open one of those babies. They slowly accumulated until we had about a dozen of 'em stashed away. The feelings about the canned yams was so strong that I suspect that if we were faced with a nuclear war Armageddon situation, we would have killed and eaten the neighbors before opening the dreaded canned yams.

    One day, shortly before Thanksgiving, my youngest son came home from school with a flier that informed the parents that his class was involved in gathering food to support... you guessed it, the local food pantry! He sort of grunted and handed it to me knowing that we were in dire straits ourselves and were "clients" of the very same food pantry. I sighed and put the flier on my desk as something to try to deal with... later.

    Coming across the flier with a fresh mind a couple of days later, a light bulb went off in my head! He could take in a whole case of the dreaded canned yams as his "donation" to the food drive. It was brilliant! We dragged out the cans, put them in a big box, taped the box shut and I drove him and the box up to the school the next day. My son got out from under his assignment in style... we got rid of the yams and the food pantry got them back to distribute to some poor unsuspecting family in need.

    For all I know, those same cans of yams are still being re-cycled in the same manner by other families to this day!