Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
November 2018 - Volume 18, No. 11
There have been five days since the incident itself and my first sitting down here to write about it. Five days to spend processing what happened to me, and more importantly, what it continues to mean to me, and what it can mean for others.
Here’s what happened
One evening, I was working late in the ‘back room’ of my office suite, having seen my last client and sitting with the ever-present paperwork that’s a necessity part of my work. Then realizing I hadn’t eaten since mid-day I decided to go across the street to a bakery-restaurant that graces my professional neighborhood. It’s an up-scale and friendly place - where sometimes I can’t pronounce what’s on the menu, but it’s always satisfying to the palate. The soup of the day was a (very) Spicy Indian tomato, to be followed by a sweet dessert and a cappuccino.
The room was only about a third occupied, it being later in the evening. Ahead of me and to my left was a table which looked to be a family of four, two parents and two young adult children. There was no specific interaction between myself and them. In time they finished and left. A short time later, my waitress came to me and said “Your meal has been paid for” - pointing out the empty table I’ve just mentioned.
A strange mix of gratitude, happiness and warmth flooded through my body at that moment, and remained with me through the rest of my meal, especially with the grilled cinnamon roll, a specialty of the house, and my cappuccino.
Some days earlier, I had determined to write this November newsletter on the subject of holiday loneliness. Then this happened - as if a response to that earlier decision. So I determined to respond in kind - as if also inspired by the young Trevor McKinney's launch of a goodwill movement a couple decades ago known as “pay it forward”. But my version adds the element of anonymity - so the feature of “gift” can emerge in its original purity.
A completely free gift
For me, as in the initial incident, I wouldn’t want there to be any knowledge of the benefactor - I would set it up to be completely anonymous. Nor would there be any necessity or suggestion that the recipient “play it forward.” It would be a completely free gift, no strings attached. There would be no dependence or qualification of ‘worthiness’ on the part of the recipient. Nor would I, the benefactor, have any knowledge of the recipient’s identity or response, either immediately or in any future.
I want it to present the concept of a pure gift - freely given without any need or even opportunity for reciprocity. If the recipient would decide to “play it forward”, that would be a free choice - dependent solely on the recipient, his or her moral compass, value system, or situational circumstances.
In summary, I want the recipient to be able to respond just like I did. Without possibility of direct payback. And independent of any necessity worthiness or indebtedness on my part.
There’s also the matter of the practical. The more I consider this, the more careful must be the engineering. If this were to take place in a dining facility, it would require the cooperation of certain waitstaff. For the purpose of anonymity, it best take place in a location where I am not well-known, and even, if I were driving, where my license plate could remain out of sight.Timing would be important so my own ‘getaway’ would be possible before the gift was delivered. How people would respond is completely independent of my own hand. Nor would I allow any channel for the satisfaction of my own curiosity.
The larger picture (1)
There are two larger pictures.One is how contrary this thinking is from the predominant thinking of our culture and it’s prevailing ideologies.
Politically I tend toward the Democratic party and progressive ideologies. Though in the measuring of corruption and unbridled ego and economic greed, there’s definitely no sainthood here either. But I currently find a bit more room here for visions of a larger world where the human soul can flourish and all peoples can honor and protect each other, as well as care for the larger world of Nature. That’s still a hope and possibility in the political areas I support and inhabit.
In an era of increasing disparity between the economic haves and have-nots, it seems as if power for economic gain is increasingly up for sale to the highest bidder. And in the current economic and political climate, I’ve heard a number of times that political decision-making more and more is determined by individual pocketbook standards. But when it becomes us vs them, especially economically and politically, us trumps. The others (them) are less and less those welcomed by the words of Emma Lazarus on our Statue of Liberty. We’re motivated politically and economically by security issues, more than our other traditional American Way of Life values. Scientific brain research has long demonstrated why this is so and why it is so tempting to be afraid. Just this past month has bombarded us with frightening and even fatal eruptions of aggression. Hatred is easy to stir up these days, and once encouraged, very difficult to quell.
This why I’ve decided to support the idea and experience of anonymous beneficence. I like its absence of any necessary worthiness.There is no debt involved, and hence much less ego entanglement.
In this I can begin to see some hope for the world.
I want to give without a supportive tax deduction. I want to give without the necessity of constant qualification of any recipient. I want to give without ending up on a digital ‘list of donors’ programmed into those ‘gotcha’ robo-calling machines.
Of course there will be “abuses” - but it seems anti-abuse medicine can kill more frequently than it heals. Human service workers have long known and lived within the inherent tensions of caring for the needy, poor, ill and the un-free of the world. They also know well the abuses that emerge when those tensions are so easily bent, even in our own times, toward the needs and satisfactions of a higher class. And these days higher is narrowly an economic term - an area of public life that seems to have no code of ethics other than the accumulation of wealth, and primarily for its own sake.
I cherish knowledge of the battlefield physician who cares not which side his or her wounded soldier patient was fighting for.
The larger picture (2)
And here is where my soul is most connected and fed. My own spiritual home is Christian, though it seems more and more clear to me that most spiritual disciplines honor the same hope/belief/confession: that the universe at base does care for us. The how and the why are frequently areas of mystery, confusion and sometimes dismissed as ‘superstition.’
I want to support and represent a view of reality that is cosmically grounded in the prevalence of love, goodness, divine law, and the sanctity of human life and soul.
And the ground of this is perhaps best illustrated by the experience of what I’m calling here anonymous beneficence.And I’ll choose to support it whether it’s “true” or not, so that my life can stand for it anyway.
Whether it’s true or not, whether it’s just or not, whether I’m deserving or not - I know it’s experience. I may not really know a lot of where it comes from, or how or why it came to me. But I do know how it feels, and what it awakens within me. Perhaps that’s enough to bet a life on.
Please join me - even though in it’s anonymous silence, probably nobody will ever know our part of it.
In that is my best hope for humanity.
In this I recognize a longstanding element in my own religious cosmology (belief, experience & response) - in a God who’s primary presence is often hidden in an anonymous absence.
At the heart of you...
Jill D Dennis Booth,
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