Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Things that aren't giving

Everyone must give according to what he has inwardly decided; not sadly, not grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver.
That's from this morning's office of readings*. The last clause is the famous one but the larger context is better.

One of the things I see more clearly as I get older is how easily we dress up things that aren't giving as giving. For example, renunciation is not giving but is often framed as giving. Living an ascetic life is not giving either.

Even sacrifice is not giving. God clearly means to tell us this in the Psalms when he reminds us, again and again, that we cannot give him sacrifices for everything already belongs to him. Sacrifice has a purpose and it is a good purpose but we'll never get it right if we tell ourselves that we are giving something when we sacrifice. But that's a subject for another day.

I started off saying that this has become clear to me as I get older. I see it especially with renunciation. As life gets older and things get more difficult, it is very easy to renounce favourite activities, foods, drink even friends and tell yourself that you are "giving" in doing so. The truth almost always is that these renunciations are acts of monstrous selfishness.

The Lemon Girl pointed one of these about a dozen years ago now. A woman we knew was throwing herself into a life of charity; spending days of every week helping with various groups. Meanwhile, her husband was the loneliest man in the world.

I think there are a number of characteristics that distinguish real giving from the fake kind, the most important of which is that real giving is always done to someone with whom you have a relationship.

To take the most obvious, and contentious, example, giving to panhandlers is not giving. It's a selfish and self-centred act.

If you don't have some knowledge of this person you give money to, you have no notion of what effect your gift is going to have. Yeah, you heard the story, it touched your heart and you "gave". Problem is the story is almost certainly a lie. The money you give will most likely be spent on drugs or alcohol.

And the point here is not that you've been lied to. So what if you've been lied to? No, the problem is that the money you gave meaning to help is actually going to do harm because you didn't care enough to give to someone with whom you actually have a relationship and would therefore be in a position to assess whether your "gift" will really do them any good.

The harm you do to panhandlers by giving them money is both immediate and long term. The long term is worse. The drugs or alcohol will certainly hurt their health but your enabling them to continue living on the street sinks them a little deeper into dependency with every passing day. The longer they are on the street, the more hopeless their situation gets. As contradictory as it may seem, taking away this option will improve their lives.

And your giving is actively hurting others. By supporting street life, you are actively promoting crime. You are making your city into a more dangerous place for yourselves and others.

All so you can feel good about yourself.

Again, we can see it with living an ascetic life. We tell ourselves it is giving on the grounds that what we are not using is a gift to others. But we don't track that gift. We don't even know if it exists. Locavores, for example, tell themselves they are helping but when you do the math, their activities do not produce any measurable benefits.

The real focus in living an ascetic life is ourselves. We are making lifestyle and aesthetic choices that we approve of and dressing them up as acts of charity.

The worst, though, is renunciation. Most often, it is a way of simply giving up on something we don't feel like doing anymore. Ask yourself honestly, when was the last time you gave something up so that someone else could have the benefit of it? Virtually all renunciation is about us and not others.

I've seen it done right. When my mother was dying, she gave up things one after another and every single one was an act of giving. With every gift it was easier for those who loved her to imagine life without her. But that was a very rare thing.

And she loved every single thing she gave up. She put effort into the giving and thought about the recipients. She took the time to remember everyone she'd had a conflict with and called them. And when she got them on the phone she enjoyed the conversations she had with them. Think of how different that is from what we mean when we renounce something.

* Corinthians 2 if you want to look it up.

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