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Post image for The Straight Dope on Kiva

Last post I talked about having mixed feelings about donating money to charity. Society’s prevailing attitude is that giving money is always helpful, and is always motivated by genuine altruism. I’m not so sure about either, and I know I’m not alone.

My suggestion for people who feel that way was to find a cause you can give to with your whole heart, without reservations. I hinted that I had found such a cause to give to, one that doesn’t make me feel condescending, or unsure of whether I’m actually helping.

It actually isn’t a charity. It’s a non-profit that facilitates small loans to small-time entrepreneurs around the world. Teresa needs $750 to properly stock her general store in Paraguay. Sergio, a furniture maker in Mexico, needs $425 to buy a reserve of wood so he can fill more orders.

These are independent entrepreneurs who probably wouldn’t otherwise have had access to any kind of financing. With a small loan, a hardworking individual can get a business off the ground, or help it become profitable.

The organization is called Kiva and I’m sure many of you have heard of it by now. Rather than donating money, you lend. You choose an entrepreneur, read their story and their business goals, and send them a no-interest loan, as little as $25. Nearly 99% of the loans will be repaid to you, usually within a year. You can then use that money to loan to another entrepreneur, donate to Kiva’s operating costs, or even cash it out and walk away with it.

By lending, rather than donating, you can help to create a self-sustaining source of income for these people. It builds economies and empowers people to support themselves, rather than depend on aid.

The three primary values Kiva is trying to promote are:

Dignity — by creating an equal-ground, partnership-type relationship between you and the person you lend to, rather than a downward, benefactor-type relationship. This promotes dignity on both sides.

Accountability — Because repayment is expected, these loans create accountability where a donation would not. Each borrower enters the relationship with the expectation of the recipient becoming self-sustaining financially.

Transparency — Kiva prides itself on being open about its operations and the financial transactions involved in an attempt to avoid some of the cloudiness people perceive in some traditional charitable organizations.

This article was supposed to wrap up around here, with an earnest appeal to lend through Kiva if you are feeling weary or ambivalent about traditional charities. But I did a bit of research, and although Kiva advocates transparency, it might not be quite what it appears at first. I want to make sure all the cards are on the table, so that people can contribute without reservations. Read More

Post image for Does Charity Leave You Cold?

Last month I bought myself an espresso machine, when for the same price I could have instead cured someone’s leprosy.

I was in a position to do either, and the decision wasn’t that hard. Somebody will continue to live with a horrendous disease — however — now I can make my own lattes.

Why did I do that? Why don’t I feel that bad about it? What will stop me from continuing to choose small luxuries for myself when I could be making enormous changes to the quality of life of other people?

Honestly, I have always been a little uncomfortable about giving to charity. I wondered if I was alone here, so I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that a lot of people have a similar ambivalence about it. The most common reasons people cited for not giving much to charity (or feeling weird about what they do give) were:

“Who do I help” syndrome — Why cure one person of leprosy, when I could provide polio vaccines for dozens? Should I help the homeless in my own city before I help the homeless in Pakistan? Who is suffering more? Does it matter? Should I give to the most popular causes (think Katrina, 9/11, Haiti) or avoid them in favor of neglected ones?

“Where do I draw the line” syndrome — Even if I had chosen someone’s leprosy treatment over my private cappuccino party, how could I justify only curing one person, when I make enough in a year to cure over a hundred? I could make some lifestyle changes, and maybe swing ten with some planning and sacrifice. But even then I’m still neglecting people whom I could save if I was willing to eat bulk spaghetti twice a day. There are some established guidelines for giving to charity. The traditional tithe is 10% — though that’s to be given to your church, and historically it hasn’t always been a voluntary contribution. The 10% mark is a real stretch for most people; the typical American household contributes 2.1% of its annual income to charitable causes. But each person’s “line” is ultimately arbitrary.

“Into the void” syndrome – Most of the time, when we donate to charity, we have no way of seeing how our contribution helps. It just disappears into the coffers of a charitable organization, and there’s something unsatisfying about that. I know I shouldn’t need the personal gratification of actually seeing somebody’s life change because of me — that’s not really the “proper” spirit of giving — but maybe I’m kind of vain and that’s what I want. Read More

Post image for So This is Christmas… and How Are You?

It’s Christmas time, and even though the holiday season is lauded as a time of giving and thinking about others, it’s also a time when people end up thinking about the state of their own lives.

For a number of overlapping reasons, this time of year often triggers some pretty heavy self-reflection, whether or not we want to call it that. In households around the world, some common scenarios are poised to unfold as the holiday season rolls in:

As the average person’s spending hits a peak, this time of year we often think about our finances, and how they got to be that way. Is this the one month when your Visa card will carry over a balance? Or is that every month? Many people perennially find themselves sitting across the dinner table from someone with whom there’s a history that might be… touchy at best. Old wounds can surface, as well as the reasons behind them, especially with a bit of wine. With the seasonal proliferation of Salvation Army Santas and World Vision commercials, we sometimes find ourselves in an uncomfortable reflection about what we actually contribute to society and the people in our community. Do you change the channel when “So This is Christmas” comes on, over images of starving children? How do you feel about that? By the same token, we often can’t help but reflect on what kind of family member we’ve been, this year and in years past. Any lingering disappointment with regard to the fulfillment of familial roles — in ourselves about others, in others about ourselves, and in ourselves about ourselves — tends to reach a head in December, for some reason. Read More
Post image for What to Do About the World’s Suffering

In all the emails I receive from readers, perhaps the most common theme is a question in this vein: how can a person be at peace with the world when there is so much suffering going on?

I don’t think I need to start rattling off specifics here — virtually every story in every newspaper is a tiny, nominal record of horrendous suffering for someone somewhere. Crimes. Deaths. Famines. Wars. Fires. Floods.

How do we live with so much suffering going on? How can I do so much as enjoy a bagel with a clear conscience while so many people are enduring unspeakable suffering?

I never really had a satisfying answer for that question most of my life, and so my only strategy was distraction. Get into something more immediate, more consuming, and those thoughts go away.

But it never really sat right with me until I began to question the usefulness of those thoughts. I think the key lies in understanding the difference between two oft-misunderstood responses to suffering.

Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, and though they are definitely not the same thing, I can’t really say my definitions are the right ones. But I think if you read on, you’ll understand why it’s so important to make a distinction.

Both are related to feeling the suffering of others. The more common reaction is sympathy, which is essentially feeling bad because someone else feels bad. It doesn’t require an understanding of the nature of the other person’s suffering, only a mental acknowledgment that they are suffering. When you react to the suffering of another with sympathy, it means you are suffering over their suffering. However, as we suffer we become less conscious. In a state of suffering, wisdom disappears, reactivity takes over, and you begin to feel helpless.

Empathy is more subtle. It is not a reaction, but rather a capacity to be aware of the suffering of another. In sympathy we can be aware that another person is suffering, though we remain preoccupied with emotions and thoughts about the suffering, making it impossible to stay keenly aware of it.

To cultivate empathy requires that you remain receptive and stable — able to listen without judgment, to stay aware without getting indignant. Above all, it requires that you do not make their suffering yours. Read More

Post image for Where is Your Mind Right Now?

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

The words caught me off guard, but they were clearly addressed to me, and seemed to match my thoughts exactly. A moment earlier a blond-headed little boy had, in plain view of his parents and a half dozen passers-by, pitched a half-eaten ice cream at the garbage can, missing completely and hitting the retaining wall not far from my seat on the bench. They continued down the boardwalk without a word.

When the stranger spoke I think I nodded or harrumphed or made some other corresponding gesture of disapproval. But when I looked up, I was surprised to see the old man was smiling and gesturing at the ocean, and had either missed or ignored the minor injustice that had me so appalled. The sarcastic tone I heard in his comment belonged entirely to my train of thought. He meant only what he said.

I still don’t know exactly why he bothered to stoop and say that to me — unless my preoccupied state was obvious to him even through my poker face and sunglasses, and he knew exactly what to say to reset my perspective.

After speaking to me, he turned back to the ocean and I followed his gaze. It was too ordinary for a postcard: blue sky, blue ocean, no clouds. But it had me like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

My train of thought had been effectively derailed, and I was able to forget myself for a moment, thanks to that random man who said the right thing at the right time. I had been totally lost, for most of the day. It was like when a noisy fan clicks off, which you never realize was running until the moment it no longer is, leaving the most unexpectedly silent silence.

I believe life with that noisy fan is the normal state of human consciousness. This was my thirtieth day on the coast of Australia. I’d been to the beach every day. It was a sunny one like most of them, and at a casual glance this ocean scene wasn’t especially captivating, particularly for coastal Australians who see it every day. Yet he was completely taken in, and so was I.

Thought-killing moments like that do happen, but often it takes something that’s particularly forceful on one’s attention. A flaming sunset, say, is exclusive and dramatic enough to wrest anyone’s attention away from their preoccupations, at least for the fleeting few minutes when it’s at its loudest, visually.

But just as often, I’ve looked at something much more ordinary at the precise moment my head-chatter cuts out, and found myself captivated in the exact same way. A dog sniffing a curb. A old playing card in a garbage can. A swirl in my coffee. There is an unmistakable significance that can be seen in all of them, but usually we’re not really looking.

This kind of moment has been happening more and more often. The most encouraging part of it is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the content of the scene is, only whether I’m aware enough to absorb it without assessing its implications to my personal interests. When my interests and preferences aren’t informing the picture — when I am not looking at it in terms of what it’s adding or taking away from me — it’s like I can watch it without being there. I am alive and aware without the normal heaviness of being a needy, self-obsessed human being. And that is where beauty is found.

I know now that this captivating quality is always there to be seen, not just in classically picturesque locations like beaches but in parking lots, produce aisles, snowbanks and people’s faces. But it can only be noticed when thinking isn’t the prominent feature of the landscape.

This state is an anomaly for almost everyone, but I think we all know it to some degree, as an occasional acquaintance. Trains of thought seem to be bent on creating new ones constantly. I suspect that for most of us, our thinking is the prominent feature of the landscape, almost all of the time.

Our thinking is such a prominent feature of nearly every scene we witness, it can be hard to imagine that we can still be there to see the world when thought isn’t around. Indeed, most people probably live and die without ever detecting a distinction between their thinking minds and themselves.

Next time you think of it, ask yourself: Where is my mind right now? Where has it been this last hour? Are my thoughts the prominent feature in my current landscape?

I’m convinced that this same, captivating significance is present in every scene, waiting to speak to you whenever you offer it a chance. It’s unbelievably patient. It could wait a lifetime.

Photo by David Cain

Post image for You Must Go Do the Next Thing

I had the privilege of being present at my father’s death. It was not like I expected.

With illness you see the person — the personality — fade over time, and you come to expect that death will simply be what you call it when there’s nothing left. In light of this it’s easy to imagine that a life can taper down to nothing without any hard edges. But death itself does come down to a single moment. He was breathing, and a moment later he was not.

Having been aware of his prognosis for five years or so, I had already envisioned the moment many times, but I had it all wrong. I expected it to trigger intense grief, hysterics.

Instead, I found I felt intensely happy for him. He had arrived the finish line, and I was there to witness it. It struck me, with all the suddenness of a lightning flash, that he was the only one in the room with no problems at all. Not a trace. All his uncertainties, needs and worries evaporated, while ours still filled the room. I watched intently as he was freed from the enormous weight of simply being alive, an unbelievably heavy thing which I’d somehow lost track of until that moment.

That heaviness is something I had never fully appreciated until I saw somebody being liberated from it. The four of us at his bedside very clearly still carried it. It hung in the room like wet laundry. It was in the hallway too — in the nurse’s faces, in the other patients, in their weary families. And we were grieving for… who? The man with no more troubles.

I do forget it sometimes — that life is a constant, forceful mixture of push and pull, a ceaseless assault of needs and hopes. As pervasive as it is, we appreciate the weight of this tumult about as often as a goldfish thinks about water. Life’s current is heavy and unpredictable and bigger than us, and as long as we’re alive we are at its mercy.

Altogether I do think it’s worthwhile to be in it, for most of us, most of the time. Not that we asked for it, but our fate is to dance with this immense force until it lets us go. So we better learn to dance.  Read More

Post image for If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than just vote

Being Canadian, I’m not able to vote in the US Midterm Elections tomorrow. I don’t think I would though.

I’ve always been a faithful voter, but last week my city voted for mayor, and I didn’t go. I think I may be done with voting forever.

It wasn’t to make a stand. It wasn’t to pronounce my disgust with the candidates. I didn’t tell anybody who didn’t ask.

Last May in Australia I found myself in an argument with a clean cut, politically-conscious English traveler about the usefulness of voting. With simple logic and simple math, he shot down every pro-voting argument I made. I didn’t like it one bit, and never admitted defeat, but I had no leg to stand on. Before we parted, he pointed me to an article (written by beloved economist Steven Levitt) that made me finally let go of my stubborn belief that my habit of voting is a useful one.

I grew up in a family where it was a forgone conclusion that good people voted, lazy and cynical people didn’t, and that’s all there was to it. Including municipal, provincial and federal elections, I think I’ve only missed one since I turned 18. I’ve been a committed voter for years and not one of my votes ever made any difference.

You see, I have never voted in an election that was decided by one vote. So looking at it rationally, in every single one of the elections I’ve voted in, the result would have been the same whether I voted or not.

Elections that are truly close are exceedingly rare. Around the world, there are about a half-dozen public elections on record that were decided by one vote, but these were all tiny elections: 3 or 4 thousand total votes. Even on that scale, the vast majority of elections are decided by a margin that dwarfs the entirety of any individual’s voting power.

For your vote to have made any difference to the outcome, the election must have been decided by your single vote. Knowing the odds of influencing an election, it makes no rational sense to vote. I’m not the first person to point this out.

Okay. Fair enough. Your vote never affected the outcome. Most of us can accept that. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to vote, does it?

I have not found a convincing reason. But here are the typical arguments: Read More

Post image for A Shocking Revelation About Human Nature

The results were horrifying. Nobody suspected it could be that bad, not even close.

In 1961 a controversial experiment was carried out that made some chilling discoveries about human nature. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to know how it was possible that so many people co-operated to commit the atrocities of the Second World War. They couldn’t all have been sociopaths, yet thousands and thousands of people did unspeakable things to innocent people, and millions more looked the other way.

Is it really that hard to stand up to authority?

Milgram devised an experiment that went like this:

Forty subjects were recruited to participate in an experiment “on learning and memory”, having answered a newspaper ad offering a modest payment for an hour of their time. Each of the subjects were informed that they would be compensated fully as long as they showed up, regardless of their performance in the experiment.

Upon arrival, each subject met with two people. The first was a man in a white labcoat purported to be the scientist conducting the experiment. The second was another person who was supposed to be a fellow subject, but whom was actually an actor. The two subjects drew slips of paper to see who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner” in the experiment.

It was rigged: both slips said “teacher,” so the real subject was always given the role of teacher, though he was under the impression that he’d had an equal chance of being the learner. The actor always played the learner.

The experimenter then announced that the learning was to be reinforced by electric shocks, which would be administered by the teacher on the learner whenever the learner gave an incorrect response to a simple memory test. Each teacher was given a 45-volt sample shock to get an idea of the shocks they would be giving.

The teacher was intentionally allowed to witness the learner being strapped to a chair, with electrodes fixed to him, before being ushered into the adjacent room, where he would be stationed in front of an electric shock generator. The experimenter sat behind the teacher, holding a clipboard. Read More

Post image for 9 Mind-Bending Epiphanies That Turned My World Upside-Down

Over the years I’ve learned dozens of little tricks and insights for making life more fulfilling. They’ve added up to a significant improvement in the ease and quality of my day-to-day life. But the major breakthroughs have come from a handful of insights that completely rocked my world and redefined reality forever.

The world now seems to be a completely different one than the one I lived in about ten years ago, when I started looking into the mechanics of quality of life. It wasn’t the world (and its people) that changed really, it was how I thought of it.

Maybe you’ve had some of  the same insights. Or maybe you’re about to.

1. You are not your mind.

The first time I heard somebody say that — in the opening chapter of The Power of Now —  I didn’t like the sound of it one bit. What else could I be? I had taken for granted that the mental chatter in my head was the central “me” that all the experiences in my life were happening to.

I see quite clearly now that life is nothing but passing experiences, and my thoughts are just one more category of things I experience. Thoughts are no more fundamental than smells, sights and sounds. Like any experience, they arise in my awareness, they have a certain texture, and then they give way to something else.

If you can observe your thoughts just like you can observe other objects, who’s doing the observing? Don’t answer too quickly. This question, and its unspeakable answer, are at the center of all the great religions and spiritual traditions.

2. Life unfolds only in moments.

Of course! I once called this the most important thing I ever learned. Nobody has ever experienced anything that wasn’t part of a single moment unfolding. That means life’s only challenge is dealing with the single moment you are having right now. Before I recognized this, I was constantly trying to solve my entire life — battling problems that weren’t actually happening. Anyone can summon the resolve to deal with a single, present moment, as long as they are truly aware that it’s their only point of contact with life, and therefore there is nothing else one can do that can possibly be useful. Nobody can deal with the past or future, because, both only exist as thoughts, in the present. But we can kill ourselves trying. Read More

Post image for Two Milestones

On Wednesday Raptitude surpassed one million unique visitors. Thank you for supporting me.

And yesterday was the final day of my twenties. What a trip it was.

I love you all.


Photo by pshutterbug

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