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.