Giving Has No Season

I cannot even count how many times I’ve been asked what I’d do with a huge lottery win.  More than the average person, considering I’ve worked in places that sell lottery tickets.  Still, the question is one we’ve all considered at one time or another.  And there are all the things we’d do for ourselves and all the things we’d buy or give to those in our lives who we know have a need.  

But what would I do with millions of dollars?

Aside from whatever personal expenditures I’d make, my plan would be to spend my life leaving very large tips for service employees.  

There’s something really powerful about the idea of just giving to strangers, not because they are specifically in need of help but simply out of kindness and generosity.  Random acts, paying it forward, simply being a giving person.  Being kind just because the world needs more kindness, being generous just because you’re lucky enough to be able to give.

Certainly making a regular habit of giving freely has an element of thankfulness to it:  giving signifies an ability to spare some of what you have, that you have enough to share.  But more than that, it’s the sharing of goodwill and joy in a way which is likely to extend beyond that act.  It’s putting positivity into the world in a tangible way which encourages the recipient to do the same for someone else.  

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The Chain of Manipulation

There are not many religions or spiritual paths active in humanity today which I would say I oppose out of hand.  There are facets of many religions and spiritual paths which strike me as singularly destructive and damaging to people, to humanity as a whole, however.  

Evangelism and mission work is one of those facets.

I wrote a few days ago about how easily the act of helping or accepting help can be twisted into manipulation, and mission work is just about the most blatant example.  I have a really hard time with the idea that any spiritual outcome is so important that it justifies holding a real need in front of another human like bait, luring them to your beliefs.  

It didn’t take much searching to find a blog post by someone committed to missionary work, talking about their experience and drive to engage in it.  The post goes in depth about the motivations for mission work which, clearly stated, boils down to the need to convert others and turn them from their existing spiritual beliefs in order to save their eternal souls.  There is no beating around the bush about it, either.  The fact that the missions experience detailed in the post was to earthquake-devastated Nepal and the idea that we should be called to lift others out of poverty and starvation were only mentioned in passing.  The physical help, the actual work of healing the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is just a means to an end.

How can we not be troubled by the idea that, when huge disasters happen in the world, groups of people swoop in to tell the victims that the state of their eternal souls is far more important than their physical life?  How is it okay to provide help to those who obviously need it and, in the process, try to undermine the spiritual underpinnings of their lives?

The blog post I linked above had one particularly troubling passage which described how, because the writer felt uncomfortable “darkness” while in a Buddhist chanting room, he decided that his long-held opinion that other world religions were harmless was clearly wrong.  This uncomfortable feeling reinforced a conviction to use the needs of the world to manipulate others into listening to religious propaganda.

Help should be provided when needed, when we are able to provide it, and never as a means to a different end.  Feed people, clothe people, give people shelter, teach people skills not because they might then come to agree with the way you think or because you get a reward out of it, but because they need it.  Simply that.  No strings attached.

Give and Take

I’m fairly sure nobody makes it through life without needing help from others.  By the same token, most of us follow some kind of philosophy or tradition which calls upon us to offer help to those around us who need it.  One thing that we have finally started to understand, however, is that those who offer or accept help aren’t always giving and/or getting the help needed.  What masquerades as help is sometimes manipulation, either on the part of the helper or the person in need.

We all know that, when we are really in need of something, our willingness to bend our own personal standards and preferences increases.  I remember once after I lost my job and was extremely short on funds that I suddenly found myself willing to go on dates with a guy I honestly could barely stand being around just so he would buy me dinner.  It happens to all of us.

Still, knowing that we can all be pushed pretty easily to that point, we have a tendency to use that knowledge to get what we want by putting our desires between someone else and something they need very much.  

On the other hand, we’ve all had times when our compulsion to help others causes us to give beyond what we think is appropriate.  Our relationships with others become leverage which allows others to tip our hand.  I think this mostly happens in dating relationships or marriages, when our love for someone else makes it difficult to say no.  

And yet, even though we’ve all been in a position of feeling coerced into giving more than is reasonable or healthy, we’re also prone to using our relationships with others to get more than we need from those who simply desire to help us.

How do we achieve a good balance between not using our ability to offer assistance as a way to manipulate others to do what we wish and not allowing a person in need to twist our generosity into enabling behaviors?  

First, I think we need to disconnect the call to help those in need from the call to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of others.  The stronger we feel about how others should believe or act or think, the more likely we are to justify using an offer of help to manipulate those in need.  Second, we all need to get better at saying no when we know we ought to.  

Sometimes help means not giving someone what they think they need.  And sometimes really helping someone means not getting what you want in return.  Maybe if we were better at drawing a line between wants and needs, between giving and exchanging, we’d not struggle so much with achieving balance.  

You Can Go Your Own Way

If a scientist finds that something they long thought was true is not supported by evidence, they investigate and change their thinking accordingly.  If a person finds that their spiritual beliefs go against what others believe, they are more likely to try to prove themselves right and squash the conflicting ideas.  

Some might think that this is because spirituality cannot be proven, only believed in and experienced.  A clash of doctrines cannot be settled through investigation or exploration like a scientific argument can.  Therefore correctness has to be established through dominance.  

I disagree.

I think the difference stems from the fact that modern spirituality is so focused on a belief that there is one true doctrine, one true path, and all others are blasphemy.  This is not a universal belief, of course, but one of great importance to the major religions of the world.  That belief is not helped by a lack of system by which spiritual truths can be unquestionably established, of course.  When a person believes they are right and then finds that their fellow worshipers have started to follow a different idea, the first reaction seems not to be a realignment with the group but a forceful reestablishment of their beliefs, no matter the consequence.

As we splinter into more and more paths, more and more traditions, disagreements driving people off the paths followed by the majority, one would think it would become harder and harder to claim possession of absolute truth.  If each of us had our own personal religion, it would be much harder to claim such knowledge.  And, frankly, I think that’s for the best.

I just wonder how many more times the established belief systems of the world must be split and splintered into ever smaller factions before we stop being able to wage large scale wars over it.  How small do our groups have to get before they are no longer so influential as to sway elections and control politics?  

How much do we have to disagree before we stop worrying about how much we disagree?

Ins and Outs

When the world feels at its most volatile or threatening, like it’s on the wrong path or the forces around us are turning against us, there seem to be two primary spiritual responses.  One is to push back.  Preach the truth and put pressure on those who do not accept it.  Empower the spiritually correct, as in literally hand them as much power as you can help secure for them, and fight to win.  The other is to draw back.  Surround yourself with a tiny world of enlightenment and spread love and truth in your own tiny sphere in your own tiny way, hoping to make ripples that will change the world in some small way.

The first assumes that “winning” either crushes or converts the opposition.  That if your truth is backed with enough power, that truth can be wielded as a tool or weapon to fix what is “wrong”.  And, sure, in terms of government and policy and the creation of systems which underpin the structure of society, yeah, it can work.  That’s why people get involved in politics.  It’s why churches send missionaries around the world.  Spiritual beliefs paint a picture of how the world “ought to be”, and with enough power and influence a group can turn that image into reality.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s harmful.  But it never does what it’s intended at the individual level.  The spiritual warfare path doesn’t, on a large scale, do a lot to change the minds of those who now feel they are attacked or oppressed.  No power can be wielded in victory without leaving others feeling oppressed in defeat.  That is an absolute truth.  Victory and defeat rarely change minds, only allegiances and motivations.

The second assumes that the answer to changing the world is to change oneself.  That if we live our personal spirituality, it will show others the way.  And it can absolutely help restore a sense of control and peace and hope in our own lives.  Our acts of compassion and kindness can deeply impact another and inspire individual hope.  But this, also, rarely has the intended impact.  When we withdraw into our own spiritual state, our own peace, we disconnect from the larger forces of negativity.  To those who are active parts of the social forces we seek to combat, we become largely invisible.  Those boosted by our small acts of kindness rarely see our reasoning for it, and while they may feel uplifted, their minds and hearts will only be changed towards us as individuals, not towards the larger force of humanity.

Somehow we have separated our spiritual paths from sensible social activism.  We do the individual self-serving bit, and we do the loud and forceful dissemination of truth bit, and we forget all about the bit in the middle.  The part where we take the large symbolic fight and conduct it one on one, confronting the actions of individuals around us when they are destructive and oppressive and harmful.  The part where we don’t just help people feel better for the moment, but walk with them while showing them the path to real, tangible, actual help.

The real change happens when the people who feel shamed and forgotten and beaten down while forces beyond their control argue about what should be done, the people who may be uplifted in the moment by your individual compassion but must return to their problems when you have walked away feeling better about yourself, when all those people see a chance to seize some power for themselves.

So yes, go protest, get loud and angry, contribute to organizations and join movements and shout the truth.  And yes, turn off the media, do things that make you feel better, pray and hug people and pay for the customer behind you in line.  But realize that none of that does very much to change the world, to change the future.  They change the present.  They change the here and now for a little while.  They allow us to be detached from the reality of the problems, to treat them like faceless forces or metaphorical energies and not like the lived realities of actual humans we walk beside every day.

We know it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But in the short term some people need to be given fish.  And it doesn’t do any good to teach someone to fish when they’re nowhere near water or if we don’t make sure they have a fishing pole.  And it definitely doesn’t do any good to assure the hungry person that you contribute heavily to the creation of fishing education programs so that someday they might have access to fishing classes.  And above all, it doesn’t do a damn bit of good to sit on your private dock practicing catch and release.

Word Counts and Deadlines

The problem with a book project like my devotional one is that, when you’re compiling a large set of small writings into a book, how do you know how long to make it?  I don’t have enough to make it a daily-for-a-year kind of thing, but I’ve got more than 52, so it shouldn’t be one per week.  In between is 100, which is a nice sounding and round number which looks good in a title, but then I’d have to pare the whole project down.  Is 150 a strange number to use?

 

I’m probably overthinking it.  

 

Right now I’m sitting at about 42 completed devotional pages, but I have notes for about 190.  I haven’t, however, gotten to spend the focused time I would like to on it, and I still have a goal of getting the whole thing written by the end of 2016, but not published until 2017.  

 

The other book — my magnum opus, as it were — has been sitting at two chapters for quite a while now.  I’d give a word count but I don’t really want to know, myself.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s a project that will take years.  It’s the journey that’s important there, anyway.  
I am, however, newly finished with my master’s degree, so now I’ll theoretically have the time I’ve been devoting to school available to devote to writing.  I’m very much looking forward to perhaps even getting the opportunity to get out of the house and write in different environments since there will still be another student in the house I should make some attempt not to disturb during her study time.  It’s either that or take a yoga class on nights when she has assignments to do.  I’ve not yet decided.

Beyond “Man Caves” and “She Sheds”

One thing I’ve always wanted for my spiritual life that I have not quite yet achieved is a private sacred space all my own.  I envision some kind of meditation/library/yoga space where nothing else happens.  

Also I want an alchemy lab that isn’t in the kitchen.

Clearly, I need a larger house.

Still, I think it’s not an uncommon desire among those who practice Neopagan or Eastern religions (and others, of course) to have a designated place for their spiritual activities.  Especially for those paths which regard spiritual activities as a retreat from the mundane and profane, the idea of shutting the world away and spending time in a sacred space is particularly powerful.  

In addition, so many of us follow individual practices which do not have a communal worship space to go to, and so we must make our own.

Even though most of us don’t have the luxury of actually creating a private sacred space, the mental exercise of designing one can be quite enlightening.  What would it look like?  How big is it?  What objects do you put in it and what do you do in there?  

In other words, what is so important and sacred to you that you would shut it away in its own special place?