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Generosity Keeps on Giving

On the morning of November 17, I watched the livestream of protestors in NYC being beaten as they attempted to shut down Wall St. I felt the intensity of the togetherness of the crowd, the depth of what seemed to be their commitment to nonviolence — these vast numbers of people surrounded everywhere by militarized police, keeping their eyes on the prize of economic justice and liberation. So many emotions ran through me: anger, inspiration, rage, love, determination, doubt. Yes, doubt. Am I doing enough? What more could I be doing?

In Oakland, there were no planned mass actions during that day, but our little affinity group had decided to do another action in front of Chase Bank on this day, in honor of the OWS attempt to shut down Wall St. In this action, we’d all be practicing generosity, offering one-dollar bills freely to all who passed. Such a completely different energy from what was happening that very moment in NYC. The sense of doubt was lingering. Was this generosity thing silly, juxtaposed with the injustice the world was experiencing and witnessing?

We’d planned our action for the lunch hour downtown, at the same Chase Bank branch we’d visited before. The security guard recognized us as we arrived. He wouldn’t allow my comrade in to the bank to get change, so she had to go to another bank nearby. Another bank employee came out to speak to me. She told me that after we’d been there the previous time, their windows had been smashed and their ATM had been burned. In the spirit of generosity, I committed myself to really listening to her. I asked if it had caused her hardship, or made more work for her. She said they’d had to close down for a day, but nobody lost any pay. There was a short silence between us, and then I said we weren’t planning anything like that, we’re doing something different. I proceeded to show what we were about by starting to offer money to people as they passed, “Would you like to take this dollar and give it to someone who needs it? We’re practicing generosity.” The bank employee remained by my side for another minute or so while I did this. Then she turned to me and said “let me know if you need me to get you any change,” and went back in to the bank.

Giving away money in front of Chase Bank, Nov. 17, 2011, photo by Melvin

Chase Bank, Nov. 17, 2011, photo by Melvin

Eventually there were six of us. New arrivals were allowed into the bank to get change. We occupied half the block, about 10 feet apart, each of us gently holding out our money in offering to all who passed. It felt a bit different this time, with no mass action happening around us, just an ordinary business day lunch hour. It’s said that the path to liberation involves swimming upstream, and I’m reminded of this because that is so clearly what we are doing. There is not one single person walking down that street expecting to be freely offered money they didn’t ask for and which comes with no expectations. It goes against everything we think we know, and every reaction shows it.

Some folks were delighted by the surprise, others were shut down to it. The range of responses tells the story of human existence. One who was devastated by foreclosure of their home seemed to think we were part of a PR campaign for the bank. Another told stories about how she loved giving, and that she’d take the money to her church, where there was always someone who needed it. One guy had a grumpy response for each of us, such as “go home to your mother,” or “Halloween’s over, pal,” in response to my hat. One person stayed to join us. Another initially took a dollar, then came back with more money for us. There was one who, when asked if he’d like to give a dollar to someone who needed it, said “no, when people ask me for money I tell them “‘that’s not my job.’” There were plenty who ignored us entirely, and plenty who were tickled by the strange and unexpected joy of our action. Some who initially ignored us,  after walking past not one, not two, but six of us offering them a dollar, would stop at the last of us and say, “so, this isn’t a joke or a trick?” Nope, no catch. We are practicing generosity and encouraging you to do so, too. That is all.

The possibility of generosity, Nov. 17, 2011I was struck deeply by the surprise of my  internal experience. On an ordinary day in an ordinary context, I’d be annoyed by the grumpy ones, defensively judging those I perceive to be judging me, and likely to be generally unpleasantly reactive. But this practice of generosity has a kind of magic to it. It changes the narrative, and offers a completely different possibility. I felt no annoyance or impatience with anyone, and any judgements that floated through my mind were barely whispers. I was seeing each of these people in their full humanity, on a path that contains infinite choices and infinite possibilities — each potentially able to touch liberation at any moment. We were offering one possibility by example, planting the seeds of generosity through embodying it. Each offering felt completely unencumbered, naturally accompanied with a genuine feeling of goodwill.

I don’t think any of us were feeling doubt about the quiet revolutionary potential of our little generosity action by the end of that lunch hour. All actions that address injustice and greed are needed in these times, both internal and external, large and small. We weren’t shutting down the bank, instead we were doing our part to shut down human greed by digging a new pathway in our minds, and the minds of all those we encountered. So, to the passerby who asked if our action had been “successful,” I say “absolutely,” without a doubt.


[author] [author_info]Max Airborne devotes her creative energy to social justice, community building, and exploring how to create the conditions necessary for authentic diversity and liberation for all beings. She is a member of the Leadership Sangha (board) of Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center. Contact her at her WordPress blog[/author_info] [/author]

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Comments (5)

  • Jacks

    Thanks so much Max!

    Your piece resonated very deeply with me. Reading the post made me want to finish a piece that I have started on practicing metta at Occupy Oakland. Particularly the paragraph where you wrote about noticing your internal process, and how often in a different situation you would feel irritable or judgmental towards people, but somehow doing this practice of generosity shifts the focus so that “ I was seeing each of these people in their fully humanity, on a path that contains infinite choices and infinite possibilities — each potentially able to touch liberation at any moment.” That is a lot of what I have been feeling when I have come to meditate and Oscar Grant and practiced repeating “May we all be filled with loving kindness, may we all be well, may we all be peaceful and at ease, may we all be happy” inside myself over and over. Thank you for articulating it.

  • chris fortin

    hi max,
    i read parts of your original blog on generosity as part of a dharma talk i gave at the everyday zen
    one day sitting yesterday. people were very appreciative! thank you for what you’re doing.
    warmly chris

  • Isobel

    Thank you for documenting your experience, inner and outer. You give voice to so much. Thank you!

  • Gloria

    Great piece! Thank you, Max! I loved the creativity of the action, and your reflections.

    I am hoping, as winter comes, that the OWS movement will become even more creative in action. Originality will keep the public interested. And keep our own brains active. Flash mobs singing and dancing, perhaps passing out thousands of dollars in Monopoly money, in shopping malls…. or ????

  • Kimberley Reppert

    I think we need to check our expectations. North Carolina, who had more experience returning this season than we have are 11-5 right now. I’m not sure if a team this new has ever had such high expectations placed on them. In fact, I believe this is the first of it’s kind. I thought we showed a lot of improvement in the Louisville game and I’m pretty optimistic they can still improve enough to take the SEC tourney by storm. Some of you fans really need to get off their backs.

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