When my son Alex started first grade he came from a pep rally ready to raise money for the school. He gathered a bowl full of small toys and office supplies and told me he was selling them for $5. I found the magazine from school and explained that he was supposed to sell the items in the magazine. 5 minutes later he was very upset. “I have to sell the stuff in this magazine?!” he demanded. “Yes,” I calmly explained. “Great!” he said as he flung the magazine to the floor, “We don’t even HAVE any of this stuff!!”
‘Tis the season for fundraisers … and charity events … and end of year donation appeals. And since we just celebrated Thanksgiving, we have officially entered what used to be the beginning of the Christmas season and is now the last lap. You all remember the reason for the season, right? Yes! Of course you do! The reason for the season is to engage in overindulgence, materialism and consumerism. It is the time to celebrate commercialism run amok! What a wonderful time of year! Because underneath the layers of Christmas wrapping paper and piles of newspaper inserts lies the heart of Christmas, and it turns out it is a heart full of love.
Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, whether we embrace the season through the lens of secular celebration or religious tradition, this time of year at its best is about giving, it’s about good will to all people and it’s about compassionate action. The winter holidays are a time to remember the joy and delight we discover in giving of ourselves to others.
Did you take advantage of Black Friday sales this week? One year my brother in law actually got in line at Toys R Us at 4:30 in the morning! To me that is absolute insanity, but he still loves telling that story. We buy our presents, fill red buckets with change and hurry home to wrap our gifts in pretty paper and ribbons and bows.
A Buddhist Perspective
In Buddhism this kind of giving is called “dana.” Thoughtful gifts given to friends and family become symbols of our love and affection. As we complete our shopping list, we are reminded of the importance other people have had in our lives over the past year and we attempt to show a bit of our gratitude for their presence in our lives. We express our Thanks in Giving.
We also pay a little more attention to the needs of our larger community this time of year. The Buddhists It is a time for cultivating compassion itself or “karuna.” “Karuna” moves us beyond considering our own happiness and well being to acknowledge that there are others who are unhappy and who suffer in all different ways. As we support charities and give to strangers we will never meet, we demonstrate “metta” or loving-kindness.
But it can be a delicate balance, expressing our Thanks in Giving without feeling overwhelmed with stress, weight of expectations and the burden of accumulating credit card debt. Because for most of us, our holiday giving becomes a blurry mixture of compassionate action and egoic giving based on WalMart values.
Giving from the Heart vs. Giving from the Ego
When we give out of the need to live up to some stressful expectation, we give from the ego. When we give and find ourselves crushed, angry or frustrated when people don’t react to our gifts the way we expect them to or think they should, we give from the ego.
But when our giving comes from the heart with no expectation of what we will receive in return, then we are practicing compassionate giving. When we give because we are truly thankful for what we have received and feel the need to share what we have with others; that is compassionate giving. Compassionate giving finds joy in the act of giving itself.
In adopting the heart of a giver, we stop keeping score. Instead, we receive the joy of discovering that in our core – in our genetic make up as altruists, we are givers. That giving is simply an expression of our own True Self. When we give from the heart, the delight we experience is in the giving and NOT in anticipation of being appreciated or acknowledged for the incredible gift giver we obviously are. The delight is in the giving — and the reaction to that giving really becomes of no consequence at all.
This kind of giving is totally different from egoic giving. It’s a lot like the difference between compassion and idiot compassion. Compassion is other focused, idiot compassion is self focused. Egoic giving is also self focused. Let me give you an example.
I used to get together once or twice a week with a small group of friends. One of people in the group was very obese and one night he announced that he was going to join a diet program through a medical facility. It was quite expensive but he was committed to that plan of action even though he had very limited income.
One of the other members of the group immediately thought we should all pitch in to help cover these costs. Now, our obese friend didn’t ask for our help. Never even suggested it himself. But friend number 2 had an offer on the table and although I didn’t agree with it, it would have been very awkward to be the one person in the room saying “No way. Not pitchin in. Not gonna do it.” So we all began contributing to the monthly expense of this program.
The first couple of months he announced his weight loss and we all congratulated ourselves on our group accomplishment. You see where this is going. A couple of months later, he started to have lapses in his commitment to the program and his success started to wane. Guess what happened? You know don’t you. Everyone who had been footing the bill felt betrayed and let down. How could he do this to US?
Wrong. When we decided to donate to someone who didn’t even ask for it, we were engaging in egoic giving – something that made us feel better about ourselves. Helping to pay for the program did not buy us the right to hold anyone accountable to us – and it created a barrier for us to be an accountability group for our friend – because instead of speaking out of genuine love and concern for our friend, we were talking out of anger and feeling bitterness that our own contribution was being appreciated in the way we thought it should. The truth is, our obese friend didn’t owe us a thing.
When we give because it makes us feel good to give, there’s nothing wrong with that. Feeling good is something we all aspire too. But when we give with strings attached, when we expect something in return, we are engaging in egoic giving. This is the kind of giving that looks like an accounting relationship. If I give to you, you are in some sense in my debt – maybe to do me a favor in return, maybe to bail me out when I need it, maybe to live up to my image of you and for you to see me as the selfless, caring and compassionate person I know myself to be.
Compassionate giving, on the other hand, asks nothing in return. It is the giving we do from the depth of our heart –– regardless of the response we get. Compassionate giving brings us to selecting our gifts and placing them under the tree with love that is free and unconditional. And it challenges us to extend such giving beyond our immediate family and friends to embrace all of humanity. It cultivates a heart of universal compassion as we offer up our concern for the well being of all others.
So let’s wrestle with the question that comes up time after time about giving to strangers. What about the guy on the street corner? If we give him a handout, will he use it to feed his family or to buy a beer? The truth is we really don’t know. So we have to make a decision. Give or don’t give. There really is no right or wrong answer. We usually don’t have enough information to practice idiot compassion. The decision really says more about our view of money and our financial systems and structures than anything else.
Some of us will prefer to donate our money to organizations that seek to address the underlying causes of disparity in order to create more financial stability for people in the long run. Some of us will be moved to act in that instant to help that particular individual with the money we are fortunate enough to have in our pocket right then and there. Some of us will opt to take this person out for a meal and a conversation to connect on a more intimate level.
All of those decisions are valid, value-based responses to human need. And if we decide to give, we owe it to ourselves and the recipient to believe the best. Give and let go. What ends up happening to it, doesn’t matter. There is no reason to stress yourself any further worrying about what you have done and whether the other person will appreciate it appropriately. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.
Our Relationship to Money
Giving from what we have to help others individually or as a group is an important aspect of living a good life. Money and our relationship to it is certainly one of the most emotional aspects of our lives. We can’t separate money from the rest of our life, because how we approach money, how we treat money, how we depend on money, how we may even tend to worship and idolize money shapes how we approach life.
The tithe (or 10 percent of our income) is a common model for compassionate giving. In the ancient world a tithe could be a compulsory tax paid to the government, a required payment to support the synagogue or a donation to charity. It’s a model that I used when raising my own children. They got an allowance. They were required to put 10% in savings, to donate 10% to whatever social justice program they wanted (which I admit was usually the faith community I was leading), and the rest was theirs to blow on Pokemon cards.
Giving satisfies our impulse toward altruism, but it contradicts our impulse of individual survival. If we give away 10%, that means we only have 90% left for our own wants and needs. We fear that unless we have more, we will be dependent on others and in our dependency we will not be free. We want freedom from anything that might hold us in bondage. We are free when nothing is present to stop us from getting what we want, when nobody is telling us what to do.
The truth is we only dream about meeting the needs of all the world’s children because we do not trust we can do more than we have ever done in the past. While the reality is that we have everything we frail and flawed human beings need to end poverty and hunger and homelessness. Why don’t we do it? We are captive to a genetic disposition of survival that has created a culture that fails its own people and a worldview that allows human beings to walk away empty, hungry and without hope. We are bound, captured by our culture, in bondage to money.
Of course, sometimes we just aren’t in a position to give any money to anyone else – that is the sad reality of economic disparity in our nation today. It is then that we need to be able to receive the gifts of others in order to maintain our own health and wellbeing. During those times, we can still cultivate the heart of a giver through our presence, with our care and concern for each other, for the positive energy we send into this world. We each do what we can – for each other, for this community, for this world in which we live.
The Spirit of Santa Claus
Edwin Osgood Grover in The Book of Santa Claus writes, “Santa Claus is anyone who loves another and seeks to make them happy; who gives himself by thought or word or deed in every gift that he bestows; who shares his joys with those who are sad; whose hand is never closed against the needy; whose arm is ever outstretched to aid the weak; whose sympathy is quick and genuine in time of trouble; who recognizes a comrade and brother in every man he meets upon life’s common road; who lives his life throughout the entire year in the Christmas spirit.”
So with the giver’s heart of Santa Claus and in the Christmas spirit of Compassionate Giving, let’s all celebrate the reason for the season!