What is the correct place of giving in our lives? I think each person can answer for himself or herself. No coerced contributions are truly giving, it seems to me, and so if our "giving" is based on edicts from on high, pressure from our peers, guilt, trying to please a spouse, parent, or boss, or on hope for a reward either in this world or in an idealized afterlife, we may have missed the mark. Also, the place in our lives of giving may change as we proceed through the various transitional phases of existence.
In popular culture, we hear various exhortations to be liberal in our giving, for example: "Give till it hurts;" "Give without ceasing;" "Give, and do not count the cost;" "You can never repay the debt you owe ...(fill in the blank, for instance your parents, teachers, etc.);" or "Service equals serenity."
We are also encouraged as we are growing up to give not just with specific kinds of helping activities but also with extra time and money. The net effect of such guidance may be to put others' needs ahead of our own, with charitable service options of all sorts and/or with donations of multiple types, covering a host of deserving causes and needy people.
I believe some of these have merit, while others are suspect or might, depending on the circumstances or the people, actually be inappropriate or exaggerated.
Our personal resources, even Bill and Melinda Gates' or Warren Buffett's, are after all limited. And guilt may not be the best determinant of their wisest use.
Nor can we necessarily look to the model of others for how to do our own giving. I had a grandfather who in many ways was a good man and who urged his church congregations to be liberal in their giving, yet who budgeted his family expenses severely and would allow his wife only a nickel to put in the offering plate each Sunday.
If we give in a co-dependent way, martyring ourselves for the sake of "enough" giving, we may have volunteer burnout while running ourselves ragged and losing that rather valuable quality, peace of mind.
I do not yet have my own ideas about giving well formed or polished. However, it does seem a few aspects of giving can be pointed to as better than others. These may not be applicable to anybody else. They just help me frame my own thoughts on the topic.
- When we give, let us try not to have strings attached. If we expect something in return, we are involved in a trade, not a gift. If I want others to think well of me or to enhance my own self-image or ego with "What a good boy (or girl) am I!?" kinds of thoughts, I am probably fooling myself, but hardly being generous.
- Who but oneself can be an appropriate model for each person in how to give? The circumstances of a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa are not my own.
- Sometimes it is best not to give what people are asking. For instance, Henry David Thoreau advocated "civil disobedience" with taxes that were to be used for unjust causes. We like to think our country would never ask us to support things that were not for the best. However, here and abroad the power to tax their citizens has through history often led to most unfortunate measures being employed by countries in the name of nationalism.
- Mahatma Gandhi took Thoreau's idea and turned it into a movement that led to independence for the Indian subcontinent from British rule.
- From a more humble point of view, it seems best not to give what folks are asking if to do so means putting our own needs second or enabling people's addictions and other destructive behaviors.
- The best giving, perhaps, is from the heart, reflective of our true passions. Another way of saying that is to give to ourselves first. That kind of giving may be the more abundance enhancing, for it taps a well whose flow is constantly replenished. "Giving" to please others, however, may lead to resentment which likely will be apparent to the recipients of our largesse.
- Each of us can determine how giving might figure into the expression of his/her true values. For me, I think the most effective and beneficial form of giving is to our true moment to moment experience, undiluted by all the distractions we can use to avoid the intimacy and honesty of that here and now mindfulness.
- Enriched by our true perceptions and sensations, we may know "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of life, but we shall be truly alive, and from that vitality we may even enhance the lives of others around us, a gift that need not be self-consciously given but arises from our being with natural spontaneity, kinship, and compassion.