TLDR: Being charitable is not just about giving money and help to the needy. Charity is a form of giving to those around us and it is not just about material help. So, what is the true meaning of giving?
Everyone in our world practices charity but many may not know they do. The type of charity we do is described in the Cambridge dictionary as “help, especially in the form of money given freely to people in need because they are ill, poor or have no home”. According to this meaning of charity, it is the form of giving money to those in need. We can say most of us in Asia give money to support our families in their times of difficulty or for general daily living expenses.
Although the word charity is often used as a form of helping those in financial need, I would like to expand the meaning of charity to include giving in ways other than financial help.
Charity as a Burden
I grew up in a poor family where my father has no sense of financial know-how. Money slips through my father’s hands easily and we never had more than enough other than for food and the rental HDB two-bedroom flat we lived in.
My mum fell ill and incurred high hospital bills. Her siblings had to chip in to help. And I must say the general atmosphere was unpleasant. It felt like there was blame on my father for his incapability to support a family and my relatives’ financial difficulties and perhaps some unwillingness in their help.
My mum passed away and I remembered all these sorrows, the importance of money and wanting to be free from all of it.
Yet there was this sense of responsibility in me that I had to chip in to pay for family expenses. I resented this Confucian society we live in where we have to be responsible even for irresponsible parents. I wished I had the freedom like those living in the West where they could go out and learn to be on their own without worrying about their parents as a young adult. I worshipped the Western ideals of freedom and liberty.
Volunteering at Charities
I found work to support myself and to give my dad some money. Also, the salary allowed me to half my home bills with my sister. Both of us went into the workforce early. Looking back, I realised there were little bills we had to pay for then. But the memory of my mum’s inadequate medical bills probably kept me going in a regular job. Also, even if I wanted to have the freedom to leave Singapore, I needed money.
Some people work for passion, some to support their families and others work because there’s nothing else to do. For me, it was a bit of passion and to give to my family.
Yet in my heart, I also wanted to give in other ways. So I volunteered at charity organizations. But my stint at these places never lasted, except for one year I made a vow to carry through with one organisation.
Although I wanted to give, I felt unhappy. I didn’t understand how to give then.
Now I understand I felt unhappy because my intention of giving was all about myself.
The Intention Behind Giving
When I gave to my family, I felt it was an obligation or a responsibility. When I gave my help to charities, I felt it could not satisfy my heart or bring me contentment.
Perhaps I expected to bring some relief to those I helped, but what I did couldn’t help lift their hearts.
I expected a thank you from my dad too for my giving, but I never did receive any.
It took me many years to realise that giving is not about fixing the other person’s problem or lifting their hearts at all. I did not see that years of carrying the sorrow of the existence of life did not lift my own heart even when others gave to me.
Charity is a Choice
I felt no happiness in giving or receiving. After I began my studies and practice in Buddhist mindfulness, I realised that it isn’t necessary to be a problem solver or to lift someone’s mind if they don’t wish to be happy despite my help. I learnt that giving to my family or others is not a responsibility but rather, it is a choice I made.
If it is a choice I have made, why was I unhappy with my choice? No one forced me to be responsible even if they may expect me to be.
I learnt that giving or helping someone is not about giving solutions. It is my willingness to make a choice to give my time and my happiness to others, even if they are unhappy or ungrateful.
I didn’t understand how to be happy by giving or helping. I realised many others did not see how being charitable can bring happiness.
How to Really Give?
To most people, giving their time means they are losing their precious time. Giving materially means giving what they have in excess, not something they may need.
True giving or charity is when we do not keep measuring our time or keep balancing the scale of what we have or do not have to give.
Of course, it also does not mean we give excessively, and not take care of our own basic needs.
To truly give is to be present fully with the other person, pay attention to what they say, and attend to their needs.
It may not be a big need, it can be small acts of kindness such as not correcting others’ mistakes by insisting we are right all the time.
Sometimes just being cheerful can infect others’ moods around us. Even if others aren’t in the best of moods, we need not let them affect us if we can be mindful enough.
How Being Charitable Can Bring Happiness?
How can we be happy by giving? The first thing to do is not to expect anything in return, not even a thank you. When we give, it is a choice we made and not others’ choice to be given.
They are free to receive the gift, whether it is our time, money or our kindness in whichever way they like and it should not affect us. Why? Because we have never asked them to receive when we decided to give. Therefore, they are free to reject the gift.
Only when we expect something in return do we react negatively to the receiver’s attitude. Without expectation, we can maintain the intention of giving happily in our hearts.
Also, when we give to another, we are sharing what we have. If it is happiness, we are sharing our happiness. If it is a material thing, we are also sharing what we have. The conflict in our world is caused by our possessiveness and continual measuring of what’s mine and what’s others – whether it is land, food, air or money.
When in fact, nothing truly belongs to us. If Mother Earth truly belongs to us, why does she not do our biding when we break certain laws of nature? How is it we cannot control earthquakes or make the weather pleasant so that it can produce as much food as possible?
One last thing about being habitually charitable is that it leaves a deep impression on our minds. Our memory of giving our compassion, understanding, time and even material things makes us happy. We may receive kindness from others for our giving, or not receive anything in return. But thinking of our own generosity and kindness lifts our own hearts in times of despair.
When you make an intention to give, whether it is time or money, don’t waver by distracting yourself with other activities or start measuring the amount to give.
Don’t judge, but pay attention to what others need by being present to them with your mind and body.
Meaningful gifts come with love from your heart. When you give without paying attention, the receiver can feel your insincerity.
If you were past the quarter-life mark of life, how would you measure yourself?
Would it be how much peers earn? Or how shiok their Instagram stories depict their lives to be?
Annabel probably ‘measures’ herself differently, or maybe not at all.
When you speak to Annabel, you won’t guess that this soft-spoken lady is running “The Heart Matters“, a Ground-Up Movement (GUM) to help the homeless and less privileged.
Setting it up in the middle of the pandemic & lockdown.
“Find a vocation, not a job”
“Find a vocation, not a job”, Annabel shared, when asked about her motivations.
Find a cause that resonates with you and do it well. Annabel mentioned that while having a job is great, finding a vocation beyond work can lift our hearts. Maybe that is a panacea to Singapore’s most unhappy workforce award.
At 25, Annabel has many ventures under her belt. She started a salad bar, partnered with social organisations (Rainbow Centre), became a Financial Planner, started a Yong Tau Foo coffee shop store, and kicked off different charity initiatives.
Each of these ‘jobs’ taught her different lessons in her budding career. I learnt from her experiences that life is less linear and more fulfilling if we are open to changes that lie ahead of us.
In addition, it is okay to call it a day when the journey is done, which she did for her different career endeavours. For example, she closed her salad bar social enterprise after 2 years.
Currently, Annabel is taking a gap period between her last career venture and the next career step.
How did she get started on this vocation journey especially when others are busy chionging (Singlish for rushing) for promotions and new jobs?
“You want the long or short story ah?” She casually asks.
I enthusiastically opted for the latter.
Annabel started her social work journey at 10 years old. She was attending Dhamma classes at Buddhist Fellowshipand started following a Buddhist Senior to The Singapore Cheshire Home (home for the seriously disabled).
From organising & playing Bingo games to helping the residents with their food, Annabel grew a strong connection to the home. Fifteen years have passed since and she still regularly volunteers there.
“Why?” I quizzed.
“施比受更有福 (To give is more joyous than to receive). As much as we think they are beneficiaries we are giving to…we are the beneficiaries of giving as well. We receive lessons & joy” she replied with a smile.
Circuit Break and Career Break
When Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s Lockdown) came, springing into action was second nature for Annabel. While at her previous job, she saw appeals for food from a nearby care centre.
She was both actively fulfilling the requests and coping with her day job. It was a struggle to juggle both, she shared.
With businesses shutdown and social organisations locking down, some elderly saw their livelihoods and social support evaporate – their situation was dire. The problem became compounded when she heard that other social organisations were struggling with logistics & manpower restrictions.
People who couldn’t be reached and were unable to buy their food were in trouble – they were starving. Seeing the plight of her fellow residents spiralling downwards, she took a pivotal career decision.
She decided to quit her job.
This would enable her to provide greater support to charity organisations & rough sleepers. Her selfless nature gave her the strength to put her career on temporary hold. To place the needs of others at the forefront when times are hard was inspiring to me.
We often cheer friends on with promotions and career achievements, especially those at Annabel’s age. Instead, Annabel is a contrarian in this and many aspects.
Circuit Breaker was a period of great uncertainty and fear for organisations and volunteers. Organisations were uncertain if they could still operate under the rules and also if their funding would tie them over this economic hardship. Volunteers were uncertain on how the virus would impact the beneficiaries (who tend to be vulnerable) and themselves.
However, Annabel placed her fears aside and navigated the unknown by arranging logistics delivery for the rough sleepers and other social organisations.
“Things popped up and we adapted to it. Good, bad, who knows? If things went according to plan, would I be where I am today?” Annabel replied when asked about navigating uncertainty.
She didn’t need to have all the answers to start moving, she just moved when there was a call for help.
This was how The Heart Matters (THM) was born.
A hidden growing problem
THM became a daily hotline for appeals from both organisations (e.g. Children’s home) and underprivileged families. As THM’s founder, Annabel is always ‘on call’. If needed, she is on the frontlines 7 days a week.
On a typical week, Annabel works day and night. Annabel organises the delivery of supplies and gifts to Non-Profit organisations & families during the day. At night, she conducts ‘night walks’ to spot and engage with rough sleepers.
Rough sleepers seem like a rare occurrence in Singapore due to a lack of awareness. In fact, it is a growing issue.
A 2019 NUS report found that rough sleepers in Singapore numbered ~1,050. Meanwhile, the government reported that calls for home shelter during the pandemic increased – these are startling numbers and the statistics may not cover all rough sleepers.
Annabel is determined to support rough sleepers despite the growing demand for shelter. Whenever possible, she tries to give them a semblance of home.
With 1 in 4 rough sleepers eating one meal or less daily, Annabel’s work is a great boon to these individuals going through a hard time.
“你来了 (You are here) ”
“你来了 (you are here)” is the start of one of the many stories that keep her going through the pandemic.
A rough sleeping uncle, who has severe memory loss, does not remember much of their interactions but greets Annabel with a wide smile and a ’你来了‘ whenever she brings him food. He repeatedly expresses his gratitude towards individuals with good hearts. Such smiles can warm the most chilly of nights.
Another rough-sleeping uncle’s concern for resources was also evident when Annabel packed him extra food & chilli on some nights.
“No need for 好料 (good food), one veg and one egg can already” Annabel recalled his comments.
It’s remarkable how individuals with so little give so much thought to others. No wonder Annabel said that while we may give materially, we receive spiritually.
“It is not how much you give”
As a former Buddhist youth leader, THM brings many Dhamma lessons to Annabel.
“When we give, we do not expect something in return. In the field of social work, some people put themselves out there for their name and fame. While some are doing it for others. Hard and heart work are needed to truly help others”, she shared.
“It is not how much you give, but your intention that matters.” Annabel recalls her colourful interactions with organisations and volunteers.
She challenged her volunteers to think deeper if they are doing it for the clout or the beneficiary. It truly can make or break a ground-up movement. Once ego and optics come into play, a GUM can be pulled into many directions, away from the direction of the beneficiaries.
Changes are inevitable
Recognising impermanence in her day to day operations is another Dhamma lesson she has glimpsed as a founder. The Buddha’s universal truth of change that we all cannot run away from is a strong feature in Annabel’s work.
“There are days that we have plans to give food to 10 people, but wet weather can make the rough sleepers move away. It can be disheartening to not find them. But I recognise that conditions were not right and that not everything goes our way”, she reflected.
Not finding them also means that the rough sleepers may go through another day without food – hard truths that Annabel has to accept in ever-shifting changes on the frontline.
However, being more accepting of change enables her to move past disappointment quickly and adjust to shifting conditions.
In addition, she emphasises that compassion has to be paired with wisdom in her line of work. At times, the beneficiary organisation would reach out with uncompromising requests from THM.
When organisations are unwilling to negotiate for a smaller gift (due to THM’s limited resources), Annabel has to apply wisdom and say ‘no’.
Saying no is difficult but necessary in ensuring that THM resources remain available to many other beneficiaries. These are moments where she balances compassion and wisdom; both necessities in walking the path of Dhamma.
The next chapter?
What’s next for Annabel and THM? She shrugs and declines to give a concrete plan/path ahead.
Having already walked an unconventional path of embarking on many initiatives, I guess that she is wise to not answer with certainty. As the sea of life always changes, we merely adjust our sail to brave the journey.
She is actively looking at options in her career and reflecting on what to do next. What I do know is that she is very joyful and fulfilled in what she is currently doing.
So how does Annabel ‘measure’ herself against others?
That is probably an irrelevant question for someone who sees little separation between herself and others. Rather, Annabel sees herself in others. When it comes to the wisdom of the heart, we can see the interdependence we have on one another.
Handful of Leaves and Kusala Mag are in collaboration to share Inspiring stories sprinkled with Buddhist wisdom.Kusala Mag’s interview with Conor is reproduced in full here:
Kyle had the pleasure of chatting with Conor Beary, who has been actively involved with VWB, an NGO that is committed to creating opportunities for local economic development through the empowerment of community capability.
Cr: Conor Beary
How did Volunteer Without Borders (VWB) come about, and what does it mean to you?
VWB evolved from a collaboration between Track of The Tiger T.R.D (A provider of experiential education and registered tour company) a local community determined to protect their rights over their community forest, and local authorities that wished to preserve the forest from poachers and loggers.
Since its establishment in 2011, Volunteers Without Borders has partnered with Track of The Tiger and various communities in northern Thailand to provide volunteers and tourists with opportunities to improve the standard of living for many in less fortunate circumstances.
On a personal level, VWB has shown me the value of communication, teamwork, empathy and problem-solving in addressing the real complex issues which communities around us face. Through VWB I can make positive contributions to causes I hold dear and further develop as an individual. I see VWB as an organisation that acts as a catalyst for change, both internally and externally.
How many trees have been planted since the beginning?
The agroforestry project in Mae Wang has benefitted from the planting of over 6,000 NTFPs (Non- Timber Forest Products) over the last twelve months. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed our progress considerably, but aim to get back on track again soon.
How do you think growing up in Northern Thailand has affected your view of nature and your efforts to preserving the environment?
Growing up around Track of The Tiger T.R.D my brother and I was exposed to outdoor excursions and environmental conservation activities since young. Subsequently, it didn’t take long for me to develop a preference for the outdoors! Growing up in such an environment provided me with opportunities to develop physical skills essential to the development of a child.
The various environmental conservation activities taught me to apply empathy not only to other individuals but also to the environment.
The list of benefits derived from being around nature is extensive, and seemingly, everyone draws different positives. From my perspective, the outdoors and nature has always been a great source of entertainment. Mountains, rivers, forests, caves and seas all have their unique intrigue. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found that spending time to run activities at these sites, particularly environmental conservation activities have been eminently fulfilling.
As a result of our love for nature, one of our goals at VWB is to use our actions, whatever they may be, to make positive contributions to the environment or communities we are involved with.
Do you think Buddhist teachings can be a part of the solution to environmental issues? If yes, how can we relate that to it?
I certainly believe that Buddhist values and teachings can be applied as part of the solution for the environmental concerns which we face. Buddhism teaches us to love the world around us, and perform good deeds for the environment in which we live, just as we would for ourselves. However, to truly address the complex problems posed by environmental degradation over the past few centuries we must work with an open mind, utilising empathy and communication to integrate the teachings which are familiar to us with foreign ideas and values that may help us solve our dilemma.
Cr: Conor Beary
Can compassion be applied to nature?
Compassion can be applied to everything in life. If you’re willing to consider being compassionate to the people, animals and matters around you then compassion may become a part of your unique mindset, and may gradually alter your perspective of a multitude of subjects.
The Dalai Lama once said “ Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, non-harming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards others.”
After analysing compassion from this point of view we can see that compassion can, and in my opinion, should be applied to others and nature.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered, and are perhaps still encountering while setting up and running VWB?
Running a non-profit organisation can prove extremely challenging. I am only a piece of the puzzle here and am fortunate enough to benefit from the help of everyone involved with us. As a volunteer organisation, we’re always looking for funding and volunteers who can help us achieve our objectives. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this task even more difficult.
In what ways can people actively get involved in your organisation?
We want to use WVB as a platform for driving change in our local communities. Eventually, I hope that VWB will be able to fund education for those less fortunate, provide economic incentives for locals to preserve their local forests and help educate student groups through volunteering activities. We want to act as a catalyst for the change we wish to see in our communities.
Any act of kindness you’ve ever experienced during your VWB activities?
I’ve been on the receiving end of kindness during VWB activities several times. It is difficult to single out any one moment as my favourite, but kindness from the members of the community in which you are trying to assist often leaves a lasting imprint in your memories.
During our first tree-planting event at the agroforestry project in Mae Wang, locals hustled and bustled all day to ensure that we would be able to perform our duties to the best of our abilities. Their genuine smiles and words of encouragement serve as ample motivation.
If there is a message for the world, what would it be?
To practice empathy extensively. To actualise the changes you want to see in your community you must first understand those within them.
Volunteers Without Borders (VWB) is a non-profit foundation established as a vehicle to provide volunteer funding and hands-on support for communities and schools, under its unique approach to Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) development. We are convinced that the solution to establishing viability for CBET lies in establishing a private sector driven pilot project that is successful in delivering: financial, social and environmental benefits on a scale that will force governments and the private sector to reconsider ecotourism and biodiversity conservation over the non-sustainable, but purportedly more profitable (short term) options of forest encroachment for agriculture, mining, logging and exploitation of the forest product.
Alternatively, hop over to Kusala Mag for more of such amazing stories!