I keep 10 pesos in my pocket for poor people on the street. I don’t give my 10 pesos out to every homeless, shabby-looking person I see, but sometimes, I wish I had the coins in easy access for shriveled up old ladies selling flowers at 8:00 PM at night or little kids selling garlic on the street. I’m working with a Huichol belief that whatever we give to others we give to ourselves. So, my act-of-kindness is arguably not really altruistic. It’s more of an experiment in thinking about something other than how quickly I can rocket on foot from our house to some other destination in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato is a walking city. We could take the bus, but rather than running up and down stairs for 30 minutes every day, we’ve been spending 2-3 hours walking to our destinations. Often, we walk faster than the bus travels anyway through the winding congested streets. It’s great exercise (at least 50% of every walk is uphill), but I find that after power-walking for long periods of time, I’m so tired, I can’t even sleep at night.
I started reading a book about Huichol Shamanism because there are indigenous Huichol tribes in this area that live mostly like they did back before the Spaniards conquered the region and I thought the topic sounded interesting. The book is actually terrible. I’m not even going to share the title because I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. (It’s like reading the resume of a 70 year old man). But there are a couple of thoughts that are worth noting; like the fact that shamanism says you can solve problems “on different levels”.
I believe that problems can be solved on different levels already. A lot of people believe this, actually. When Christians have difficult problems, they pray, for example. In my opinion, this would be solving the problem using a spiritual rather than a material level. But the thought that when I give to others I give to myself, that’s more challenging. I mean, it’s hard to give money to someone who is suing me, but the belief says that if I give that money away, it will come back to me, so to speak. When I feel poor, I don’t want to give money to others. And it seems irresponsible to give away money if I can’t claim it on your tax return, right? According to the Huichols, it doesn’t matter if you deduct your charitable donations; the donations will be karmically deducted from your spiritual debt (using a little Hindu terminology to make the theory more succinct).
If I give money to someone and then get attention for it (by writing a blog post about it for example), I technically get something out of my good deed. One could argue that I get a certain amount of attention for having written about the giving gesture and therefore, I received “payment” in return for what I’ve given to someone else. Maybe I give away 10 pesos, but I don’t receive 10 pesos in return. Instead, someone comments on my blog and I get the attention I was after. I therefore received my payback.
Most philosophers don’t believe in altruism because of this conundrum, but I’m telling a story here, not setting up an argument about whether or not altruism is a real thing or not.
So, today was a “day off” in our world. The first “day off” since mid-August for our family actually. We decided to visit the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum) on our big day and then go to the grocery store. At the exit to the Mummy Museum, there was a very old woman who was selling peanuts that were covered in some sticky sugary substance. I bought a bag and paid her a little more than she asked for. Then, since we can’t really eat stuff that doesn’t have the ingredients listed on the bag, I decided that I would give the peanuts to someone on the way to the grocery store.
Normally, as a destination-driven-family, we would go into high-gear and pass people on the street, one after the other, but I was in the lead and I was preoccupied with who in Guanajuato should get my bag of peanuts. I thought about it carefully. There were homeless people. Poor people. There were kids and people of any age who just looked sad. The thought of who I’d give those peanuts to made me patient when I’d normal feel exasperation as I walked behind two rather large women balancing on rather high heels down a cobblestone path. It was a pleasant to be preoccupied with the thought of who should get my peanuts.
Metaphorically speaking, I always have a bag of peanuts with me, but usually I’m so overwhelmed with the need to arrive on time or just get where I’m going as fast as I can that I miss a lot of the important stuff on the way.
I turned around to John and Lydian when we got to an open space on the sidewalk and said, “Who should I give my peanuts to?”
“I don’t know.” John said. “There’s that homeless guy that always sits on the corner.”
I’d seen him and thought about him too. He sits with a sign that says God is Sufficient. But I was afraid of giving him something because I didn’t want him to expect me to give him something every day when I walked by him.
Giving something to someone who expects it doesn’t feel like generosity. It feels like paying bills.
“It doesn’t have to be a homeless person.” I turned as I was walking and said to John.
“That’s true.” He said.
Just then, I saw a little boy with a far off look on his face sitting on a step outside a little shop. I walked up and said, “Do you want this?” He smiled at me. I handed him the peanuts and walked on.
Since we’ve arrived here in Mexico, I’ve been aware that I’m trying to move too fast, not just through the city, but through life in general. Instead of the hills and the stairs and the convoluted streets slowing me down, I’ve just walked faster to compensate for the extra time it takes to go uphill. I’ve been confounded with the problem of how to slow down. How to keep from missing everything in my haste to see it all. This was the first thing I tried that actually worked for me.