There is one thing we can all do in these wretched times of powerlessness and overwhelming sorrow. Give.
When I was in Dharamshala in northern India, where the Dali Lama governs in exile, I was often confronted by beggars on my way to class or meditation. Children with twisted limbs, mothers with sick infant on breast, the elderly only able to crawl. To give or not to give, this was the dilemma. Seasoned travellers swore by dicta that to give was just to perpetuate the industry which was run by criminal elements who staged or maimed for their own benefit.
I was learning about giving to your enemies as a lesson on compassion one day, when I realised that the begging quandary was a problem I should seek to learn from.
I went to a cafe for lunch, and found myself sitting next to a monk who was disabled as a result of frostbite occasioned on his crossing from Tibet. We got to talking, as you do, and I asked for his opinion on the beggars. Essentially, should I give to the beggars or not?
Well, he said, do you have money? Yes, I answered. Well, he said, then you should give. Mmm.
I said, ‘If I give to every beggar every day then I soon won’t have any money’.
And he said, ‘Well that may be true… and it may come to pass… in which case, you will not have a dilemma any more’.
I was stunned at this deceptively simple but deeply challenging solution. Just give until you can’t give any more and go from there. I must have looked somewhat surprised.
‘Giving is the noble expression of the benevolence of the mighty,’ he said. And he gave a Dali Lama type of chuckle.
From that moment, I gave to every beggar on the street at Dharmshala, and of course I did not go broke, as I was only there for a month. Interestingly ‘my beggars’, the regulars, soon protected me from others, and my daily sojourn included what I came to view as my coin dropping zig zag road toll.
After a while, they just waited for me to come to them.
It was a powerful and poignant lesson for me that I have carried comfortably for years.
If you have, you should give. It is an act of compassion, of loving kindness, that helps the giver and the recipient in deep and lasting ways.
Even if karma is just a myth, I would continue to give – not for a better deal in the hereafter, but for a better world in the present. Jesus had it right, it is harder for a rich person to get to heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of the needle.
And I reckon this is true of Australia as a nation – the starting point is that giving is good.
How sad the grim reality is. In any discussion of foreign aid, it is worth remembering that there are many who are against our government giving anything as they struggle with day-to-day expenses.
I get this. Yet there is a mythical framework to this distaste – when you ask the naysayers what proportion of GDP we give, it is characteristically overestimated at five per cent to 15 per cent rather than the reality.
Not only that, but the biggest givers individually to foreign aid projects or disaster funds, proportionately as well as in total, are those in the lower socioeconomic brackets. Not only that, but the poor volunteer their time in much greater numbers than the well-off. Jesus had something to say about that too when a poor widow donated two small coins.
With foreign government aid, the common international benchmark is 0.7 per cent of national income. In the ’50s and ’60s, Australia sat at about 0.5 per cent. Then the Fraser years saw a rapid decline to 0.33 per cent. In the Hawke/Keating years, things got worse, Rudd/Gillard aimed for 0.5 per cent but never got there, and ever since we have been bumping along the bottom, now at less than 0.2 per cent and not forecast to improve for years yet.
In the mid ’90s, we were ninth out of 30 of the richest countries for giving, now we are 27th, despite being the 12th-richest country in the world.
So for the moment, giving is all I can do in the absence of lying down before tanks in Gaza or Ukraine. I feel so deeply angry and ashamed that Israel is killing so many civilians.
I just cannot watch it any more without wanting to throw something through the television and yell ‘well if you want to curb antisemitism, perhaps you could start by not killing children’.
If a Hamas operative was hiding under a building surrounded by Israeli hostages, as opposed to Palestinian human shields, would you bomb them? And we all know the answer is ‘no’, so what does that say about you?
So I give. I normally try to find a direct personal connection to funnel funds and shy away from the big charities, but this time that is not possible. Médecins Sans Frontières is a great option, especially after reading how four of those doctors were bombed to death recently in a Gaza operating theatre. Amnesty International is a medium-term choice for promoting lasting peace and human rights. And UNICEF has a specific campaign for the children of Gaza.
I speak, I write, I give. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.
♦ David Heilern is a former magistrate, and is now Dean of Law at SCU.