The other day I bought a homeless woman breakfast. I was heading to the (non-rainbow) bagel store for the obligatory dozen of NY bagels to bring as a hostess gift when visiting out of town family. I hadn’t seen this woman before and haven’t seen her since. She didn’t have a sign or ask for a handout. She looked terrified and miserable and my heart went out to her. So I bought an extra bagel, a banana, some juice and dropped it off with a smile and a wish for her to have a good day. Hopefully it helped even a little, gave her a good moment that let her know the world isn’t all bad, that whatever she might get through whatever she was facing.
I did it because I felt sorry for her but I also did it because I knew it would make me feel good inside, and it did. And there’s nothing wrong with doing good because it makes you feel good.
This weekend, a friend made a trip out of town to support his adult son whose mother was dying of cancer. My friend did it because he knew his son needed the support. He didn’t do it because he knew it would make him feel better – he gave freely without expectation that he would get anything out of it for himself.
In one of my favorite meditations, a meditation for the dying, you reflect back on your life and bring to mind three times that you made a positive difference in someone’s life, with no expectation of any reward for yourself. Traditionally I understand that this meditation is done when you’re actually dying but you can do it at other times, too. I don’t do this meditation often because it’s hard to bring to mind times that I have truly given freely, without the anticipated reward of that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing something for others.
The one that comes most readily to mind is when a young coworker came to me because she felt that some of the other managers were treating her differently because she was black. “Wow,” I thought, “this is really an important conversation.” And gave it my full attention. I had never been faced with a conversation like this before and I had no anticipation whatsoever that I would get it right or that I would have a warm fuzzy feeling in the end – the thought of how I would feel during or after the discussion never even crossed my mind. All I could think about was how she was feeling, what she was saying, what might feel like help to her. I can’t tell you what I said that day — it must have helped because she sent me a note later thanking me for that conversation. I’ve kept this note for over 15 years because, when I received it, I did get that warm fuzzy feeling (and also a sense of relief).
When I do the meditation on dying, I don’t include buying the homeless woman breakfast or helping my in-laws move or giving my sister a break from caregiving, because I know I did those things in anticipation of the dopamine hit I would experience when I did them. Donating to HousingWorks doesn’t count either because, although it’s a worthy cause, for me the act is really about getting rid of reusable things that I don’t need anymore (books, trays, picture frames) in a way that doesn’t cause guilt about landfills. Giving to the Red Cross after a disaster feels necessary; giving to the Brady Fund is fueled by anger – these donations won’t get included in my meditation either. And neither does reading to first graders – that is truly a selfish act, because I love reading to children and I get such joy from their company.
We should all give to those who need help. We should take care of our elderly and spell those who take care of the elderly full time. We should take action in ways that support our beliefs about what this world should (or shouldn’t) be like. We should do these things for whatever good reason we do them – even if that good reason is that it we enjoy it, or it makes us feel good, or feel virtuous, or it sets a good example, or it scores brownie points with someone or something bigger than us, or we want to see change, or it just needs doing and we’re the best one to do it. People benefit from these good acts whatever our reason for doing them.
But when it comes down to it, we have to look ourselves in the mirror when we do the meditation on dying, and reflect on when we have truly given freely. You will know these moments because they come find you, you don’t go searching for them. When they come, be present, stay present, and give freely. You may not even realize you’re having one of these moments until afterwards, because you are so focused on the other person.
These moments are gifts that you don’t know you’re receiving until later.