What Can You Give?

My spiritual life in the last several years has been a very private one, which has been a conscious decision.  I may talk about it in circles like this one where I can generally assume that if you stay to hear me you’re interested in what I have to say.  I have no desire to go around trying to convince people to follow my path.

However, there’s a big difference between proselytizing and contributing.  Surely, if a spiritual path is worth anything at all, it will call on those walking those footsteps to do something positive for others on and off the path.  And, it would follow, that the more solitary the spiritual journey, the more important it would be to contribute of oneself in ways that reach beyond spiritual practice.

In my own spiritual life, I choose to take this as a call to not just strive to improve myself, but to strive to improve what I can of the world around me.  This opens possibilities far beyond the feeding of the hungry and comforting the hurting.  This stretches into a search for opportunities to teach, to assist, to generally make myself useful when I can to efforts which I feel are beneficial to the world.

What does your spiritual path ask you to give to the world around you?

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.  

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.  

Give Of Yourself

I’m not the most tidy person of all time, but I do believe there is something especially valuable in the ritual of cleaning and decluttering.  I’m not just talking about routine chores like washing dishes or mopping floors, but the deep Spring Clean or complete overhaul of a storage system.  Even someone like me who, to be honest, has little problem navigating piles of clutter feels different when their living space has been freshly cleaned, organized, and purged of unneeded items.

 

Certainly there are spiritual parallels to the process.  Many traditions include rituals meant to cleanse the spirit in some way.  A focus is often placed on finding those thoughts and behaviors within ourselves which cause negative consequences and purging them from ourselves.  And part of the idea of feng shui is that the condition of our environment has a direct impact on our thoughts and actions.  Clearing the spaces around us of clutter and useless objects creates a space more supportive of a focused and positive life.

 

Now, of course, that’s the ideal.  Just like some aspire to daily meditation or prayer or other consistent and lofty spiritual goals.  Those are great.  I’ve never been particularly successful living up to that kind of expectation, but that’s a blog post for another day.  
Still, for those of us who are seeking meaningful ritual with spiritual subtext, a regular ritual of removing things from our physical existence which serve no positive purpose is a simple and meaningful one, especially when combined with the act of donating those things to those who can benefit from them.  Cleansing our own lives and elevating someone else’s in the same action is a ritual with a really profound positive lesson:  just because something isn’t useful to us doesn’t mean it’s worthless to everyone else.  Things aren’t good or bad, they just are.  It’s how we use them that matters.