I used to only donate to third world countries. That’s where my dollar would stretch the furthest, it was clearly the most logical way to give.

Then fate had me help someone face to face.

It was the third week of November. My team at work had decided to forgo our traditional morale event and instead make Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. Most people decided to put on an apron and help cook the food, but I thought it would be cool to deliver.

We loaded the van with 80 pounds of turkey goodness and drove down to Tent City 3.

I got out of the van feeling a bit awkward. I’d never done anything like this before, what do you talk to a homeless person about? Fortunately for me, someone had already contacted Tent City.  A couple folks were waiting for us, ready to help unload the food.

As we finished setting up the trays, the dinner call went out. I was expecting a long line of rowdy, hungry people to suddenly appear. Instead, cheerful groups eased by, cracking jokes as they loaded up their plates. “The pie is awful, want me to take it off your hands?” “Thanks for the food guys, you grab a plate too!”

John, one of the men who’d helped unload, walked over and started telling me about the camp. It was like nothing I’d imagined. They had weekly elections, term limits included; John was the group’s leader this week. Every big decision the camp made was put to a vote, majority rules. They ran their own security patrols around the camp and had zero tolerance for drugs. There were even conflict resolution protocols! It was a democracy the Greeks would be proud of, living under blue tarps in an overcrowded parking lot.

Even their living arrangements surprised me. They made agreements with various churches to camp out in their parking lot for three months at a time. Careful not to overstay their welcome, when the three months were up they’d pack their bags and move to some other church.

And then the bombshell: Five days from now their current stay ended and they’d have to leave. But they still didn’t have a place to go.

It was a punch to the gut. Hearing it directly from John made it viscerally real in a way that no powerpoint on poverty could hope to achieve.

I wanted to help. And not just give money.

But...that went against reason. Why not spend that time earning more money and donate it, like I’d always done? If $10/hour labor can do what I would do, isn’t it better to spend that hour earning $40 and donate that instead? Why did this feel different?

Over the next few years I started noticing the answer surfacing in multiple ancient cultures, based on millennia of hard won wisdom. From the east to the west, across Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the Orient, the sages offer the same advice:

Build your community. Support each other.

Leisure isn’t the Goal

Ancient Japanese wisdom talks about ikigai, the happiness of always being busy.

Busy doing what? Helping others.

Wait, what? Become happier by helping others? How about I become happier by watching Netflix?

It’s a bit counter intuitive, but that’s how our psychology works. Leisure activities like watching TV offer quick dopamine hits, but helping others is what offers that feeling of fulfillment.

And the ancients knew this:

Christianity encourages the service based life, preaching that you “need to be a servant to be truly fulfilled.” No, buying the latest iPhone won’t do it.

Even Islam teaches that the best deed you can do is to help your brother. But it adds a catch: your niyyat — your  intention, your mindset — has to be correct.

When you help others you must actually care about the other person. Prophet Muhammad said “None of you believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” It’s not enough to do something for others while hoping they’ll reciprocate. You can’t be hoping they’ll like you. Or expect applause. That’s not the right niyyat, and it won't do you much good.

Caring is critical.

“Wait, this sounds contradictory. You’re telling me to help others selflessly because then I’ll feel better? Isn’t that inherently selfish?” Well, kind of, yeah.

It’s not about being perfectly altruistic.

It’s about the things you think of while you’re helping others. The thoughts going through your head in the moment. Have you connected with the other person on a human level? Are you solely focused on their welfare?

Paradoxically, it is when you’re not thinking of the benefits to yourself that you benefit the most.

The benefit to yourself is an afterthought, a gift you notice. It can even be something you think of beforehand to motivate yourself into offering that help in the first place.

But in the moment? It’s gotta be all about the other guy.

“It’s not about me. It’s about others.” --John Maxwell

Let go of the self centered mindset. Focus on helping others because you think they are worth it. Parents know this instinctively: When I’m feeding my toddler I’m not thinking about her reciprocating one day. That’s not how we work.

“Okay, my kids are one thing. But man, what about everyone else? Do I have to care about them all? That sounds hard.” Yeah, that’s a tall order. And you only have the right niyyat when you help people you care about.

So...who do you care about?

Community is Key

It’s hard to care about a statistic.

I used to be a big believer in effective altruism. It emphasizes giving charity to places where the largest number of people will benefit from it. There’s definitely value in that philosophy, but that’s not how our psychology works. People are more motivated to help if you tell them a story of just one person who would benefit from a $100 donation, compared to hearing about 3 million people who need the help.

It’s more fulfilling to help those we relate to.

And while donating money is great, nothing packs a bigger punch than taking the time to personally help people you’ve connected with. The Jewish concept of tzedakah emphasizes that charity "cannot be done to someone – rather, it must be done with someone"

The Japanese take this a step further and emphasize building your moai. A moai is a group of people with common goals who look out for each other. You become part of a community and your focus is on helping your own group.

You lift up those you care about.

Islam has a similar emphasis on community: It encourages congregating morning, noon, and night for daily prayers. Imagine the connection you’d build interacting with people that regularly. Simply accepting a dinner invitation and breaking bread with someone is considered more praiseworthy than most acts of personal worship. It’s another way to cement those ties of brotherhood.

The instructions are clear: know your community, and help your brother.

Communities come in many forms, but remember, to be a moai it must have two components:

  1. Individuals have shared goals
  2. They have each other’s backs.

The internet makes it easy to find people who share your goals, just go check Twitter. But there isn’t anyone looking out for you. You’re a drop in the ocean, a faceless name in the sea. Maybe you get a question answered, a post ‘liked’, or possibly even reshared if you’re lucky. Then one swipe later you’re forgotten, a quick dopamine hit fading away.

That deep connection was never there. It’s not a moai.

Deep relationships come from interacting repeatedly with the same people. By knowing their stories, and them knowing yours. From caring about each other and looking out for each other.

Those bonds are hard to form in large forums. You need to have 1:1 conversations for that to happen, and even then there’s an upper limit to how many people you can befriend. Studies show people can only have 3-5 closest friends, a couple dozen that you can be somewhat close to, and 150 people casual friends. That hundred and fifty is the upper limit of how large a community can get before people stop feeling connected and the group splits apart. Don't bother joining a group larger than that.  If you can’t invest time in people, you can’t hope to be close to them.

If you do find yourself in a large group, find a smaller subgroup that you can have closer ties with. I’m currently taking a class called Write of Passage, which has over two hundred people enrolled. As we practice writing essays, we'll offer each other feedback on theirs, and chat 1:1 via twitter or Zoom. Over time, I found myself gravitating towards the same set of people for most of my interactions. Everyone really wants to see the other person succeed. We're forming our moai.

Together, we lift each other up way higher than any of us could go flying solo

Build your community. Support each other.

Your community can be anything you want it to be, but it won’t be real until you know their stories and they know yours.

When I drove to Tent City 3, the homeless there were just a stereotype. But hearing their stories and struggles first hand turned them into real individuals who mattered.

I doubt I made a similar impression on them. I didn’t share much of myself, it felt awkward saying anything that might remind them I had an actual home. A couple days later I was probably nothing more to them than “those guys who brought the food.”

So sure, I gave them a meal.

They gave me so much more.