A core LJIST value is Dāna: the practice of cultivating generosity. When I stumbled on the concept of dāna, one of the Niyamas in yoga philosophy, I realized this word elegantly captured all that I had learned from my dad and being raised poor.
Both my parents were poor at some point in their childhoods…as was I. Poor people are some of the most generous people I know.
My mom was the main bread-winner in my family growing up. Her job with the phone company provided health insurance, which we needed because my dad was on permanent disability. Once my dad qualified for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), we received government payments for him and each of his three dependents, me and my two sisters, until we turned 18. SSI was truth in advertising: supplemental is not enough to live off of by itself, but SSI was a crucial supplement for our family income.
When I was six, my mom got her job at the phone company and my dad was determined to be “permanently disabled” and could collect government assistance. Before that, we were poor. We would have never described ourselves that way.
Before my dad’s back finally gave out and chronic pain became his other companion, he worked for a minute as an assistant surveyor. My mom found a typing job that turned into a bookkeeping job. Mr. Hook would drop off the papers or ledger he needed typed or bookkept on his way home from the office (my mom didn’t drive at the time) and my mom would have them ready for him to pick up the next morning. During the day she would care for us and, when my dad was bed-bound, him as well. I’m pretty sure she didn’t sleep much during those years. I won’t romanticize it: there was a lot of fear and stress.
And yet, that’s when I learned the most about being generous.
I remember that we would never go to visit our neighbors or family with empty hands. I also remember our family and neighbors showing up with groceries when they knew we didn’t have enough food. Carol, who lived down the street from would show up at our back door with an extra gallon of milk that her family “just wouldn’t be able to finish.” She told us she hoped we could use it, even though she was raising 6 boys all under 18, who surely would have been able to drink it
Poor people know how little we need to live a good life. We know how to differentiate between a “need” and a “want.” And we understand that sharing what we have, no matter how little it is, brings joy. The act of sharing, of being generous, of connection with others, is the point.
Most poor people don’t have their basic needs met, which is why poverty isn’t rational and can be eliminated. Poverty, as an economic state, only exists because there is greed. There are more than enough resources for everyone to have what they need. Maybe not what they want, but definitely what they need.
When we were poor, we were the beneficiaries of “acts of charity.” And I didn’t like it. Charity came with pity. Charity felt like someone else was better than us. Charity let me know that someone else felt lucky enough to not be us; they would give us a little of what they had so they could remember they weren’t us. They weren’t poor. They were “lucky” because they weren’t poor.
Once we moved from poor to working class (again, not distinctions my parents would have made or even language we would have used at the time), we got to be “charitable to those who were less fortunate than us.” Now, it was our turn to feel just a bit more superior, a bit “luckier,” because we were, thank goodness, no longer poor. And as much as I didn’t like being on the receiving end of charity, I confess I felt some relief getting to be on the giving side.
But not my Dad.
There was that time when my mom figured out how to pay cash for the modest 3-bedroom ranch home after she retired, my father collected scrap wood and materials from dumpsters to build a one-bedroom casita in the backyard that resembled his childhood home from Puerto Rico. He was most content in his hammock there, surrounded by the fruit trees and flowers he tended.
Or when my dad came to visit me at an apartment I was renting when I lived in Puerto Rico. I remember he let slip, “Imagine if I owned this…,” and then he quickly interrupted himself, “No, I wouldn’t want to own this.” And I asked him, “Why not?” He said, “Because it would distract me from what really matters: being with people, being in the garden, being with you.”
Even as our financial situation changed and we moved from working class to middle class, my dad’s connection and commitment to live simply, to stay connected with poor people, to see himself as no better, to practice generosity, didn’t.
My dad collected and recycled cans from the nearby park, neighborhood garbage cans, and dumpsters. He’d get up early in the morning to do this and then take his bounty to get deposit returns. Years ago, my parents had made the financial arrangement that his SSI check went into the bank account that my mom managed. But the can recycling money? This was his money. He made about $200 a year doing this. And it gave him such joy to give it away.
I remember whenever I’d come home to visit, he’d slip me a $20 bill (he would never want to make a big deal of it or draw attention to what he was doing) and say, “Treat yourself to something nice. From me.” And he would smile.
He had such joy in the giving.