Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Begging to Differ: Charity at the Threshold

Begging to Differ: Charity at the Threshold

[Rembrandt—Beggars at the Door, 1648]

With all due ritual and circumstance, a friend recently game me a begging bowl as a token of appreciation. That bowl now contains an origami-folded snail made from a dollar bill (slow money) and one as a rabbit (fast money). However, the constant presence of the bowl got me thinking about
the real practice of begging as a spiritual tradition and as I experience it presently on the streets of San Francisco.

As I walk or drive along many people have signs out asking for help and it invariably raises an unwelcome inner dilemma. Some of the signs seem tragic, some clever, most on found cardboard and the worse for wear. The people displaying those signs are sad exemplars of the human condition and their presences are compelling. My personal dilemma has many dimensions of elicited response—a kind of pity, anger and guilt at a system (of which I am a part) that makes for such a dehumanizing situation, and an uncomfortable reminder of my own privilege. I am enervated by my inability to reconcile seeing such impoverished conditions in a place where there is so much wealth.

Begging has a rich history, storied as social commentary through literature and art, and treated as emblematic and instructive of one’s responsibility to care for the other or less fortunate. The dynamic of cross class interaction and the assumptions both true and false that are played out in that dynamic are the stuff of drama. Begging and the charity it elicits, are part of a moral or religious cosmology of wholeness, and charitable acts have their own reward. One Renaissance painting, a seven-paneled altarpiece (1504) for St. Lawrence's church in Alkmaar, Netherlands, portrays the seven works of charity needed to secure a place in heaven. This Christian moral instruction identified the acts as: feeding the hungry (as shown in this detail), refreshing the thirsty, clothing the naked, burying the dead, receiving travelers, visiting the sick, and comforting prisoners. In this approach, the beggar serves the religious progress of the donor by providing an opportunity to exercise virtue. At the same time, the beggar’s condition is nothing more than a fact of life, an object of pity. The beggar’s condition did not symbolize injustice; the work of art did not serve as polemic call for systemic change. This would have been outside the bounds of the mores of the time.

Another thread in the history of begging comes through the Buddhist stream of renunciation of worldly goods. Buddhist monks carry their begging bowls as part of their initiation and work in helping to bring about new spiritual consciousness for the world. That tradition found expression in the Christian “west” as well. Based upon the Francis of Assisi’s personal epiphanic experience, his followers became mendicants as part of their evangelical work in the world. The Franciscans held community property rather than private ownership as essential to furthering their sacrifice of self for the good of God. This is a far cry from begging to meet one’s basic needs.

Such begging is one of the most unfortunate conditions to which a person may be reduced; yet, in a spiritual or religious context, such as Buddha with the begging bowl, it is practiced as a path to enlightenment. In the former, it does not seem a preferred choice; instead it is a social consequence. In the latter, the practice is taken as a totally conscious self-imposed choice. Regardless of whether imposed by external circumstances, or taken as a personal path, both require a committed trust in the world, and both are conditioned on vulnerability. Both extremes share a quality of threshold experience that places the beggar at the edge of existence and the gift as a virtuous or spiritual deed and bridge across that existential chasm.

In this line of thinking about begging, a dear friend told me about Cyberbeg.org and its kindred host of sites such as cyberbeggar.com, donate2me.com, and ePanhandle.com. Given all the emotions evoked by the interactions between beggar and donor, this new virtual process is intriguing in the anonymity and safety it makes possible for the beggar complemented by a capacity for reach that goes well beyond a stream of passersby. To set up a begging site, I imagine one first has to self-identify as a beggar, with all the stigma and cultural baggage to set aside at least for the time being. This seems to me to be a fundamental shift of consciousness made possible by the aforementioned safety of the virtual space. [I would like to disclose here my concern about how presumptive this assertion may be as I do not identify as a beggar.] I can certainly see the advantage to the beggar as a way to present his or her case without feeling judged by others, and without the physical strain of the act itself. The opportunity to tell one’s story to whoever might listen or read definitely has value.

But, as a possible donor why would I go out of my way to find such a site where I know I will find active “begging” when I would prefer to avoid such pleas in my daily travels? Wouldn't I expect to have my heartstrings pulled? Given my own take on this, I wonder what kind of person might seek or take pleasure in reading about others’ tragedies—unless the search actually started as a desire to be charitable. That such a site (or sites) exists is a sign of the times, both the shadows and the opportunities.

Here is how Cyberbeg introduces itself (from the “about us” page of the website):

Cyberbeg.com offers people hope. This site provides a way for financially unfortunate people to connect with those who may donate. Some may compare it to a lottery or the classifieds, but we like to think of it as a site dedicated to helping people. Before Cyberbeg.com, the financially unfortunate had no way of asking for help. Now, through Cyberbeg.com, requests are broadcasted for donators to view. The creators of Cyberbeg.com send the best of luck to all of those who need help and a sincere thanks to those who have donated to these worthy causes.

This represents a new kind of marketplace, competitive, comparative, based primarily upon access to the web and then the quality of written language. As I read the appeals I was inwardly replicating the same unwanted dilemma, the interest in along with the “wish-it-weren’t-so” but with a slight shift—the rising sense of being a voyeur. In an attempt to understand this new mechanism and venue in the gift economy, I had chosen to enter the domain not to beg or donate, the site’s primary reason for being, but rather to see what and how people would represent need. The stories are compelling and I am sure they are mostly real notwithstanding the necessary legal disclaimer, but in the end I felt more like a consumer than a donor, even though each of the entries has its own donate now button. I do not know whether this feeling is conditioned by how much internet information seeking and shopping I do, or because my intuitive donor process is not activated by the virtual nature of the venue. I do know that charity is literally and figuratively a gesture of the heart and of love. Despite all the begging in the world, stepping into that gesture is also a threshold experience of my own making and one that I take in a measured way. Given that I am writing this essay on Martin Luther King’s birthday, it seems entirely appropriate to close with his words:

Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one's soul.

It is possible to consider Cyberbeg as a new and virtual practice of the begging bowl. When one registers a need on the website, it is clearly out of an inner decision or commitment, sometimes desperate, to seek gifts by “wandering” through cyberspace. My only hope is that by donating online, the donor also has a meaningful and hopeful experience.

John Bloom
© 2008