Probably the biggest gift you will ever receive is the huge investment your parents made in you. But they are not the only ones who gave to you. During the course of your life you have received many things from other people – teachers, relatives, strangers. Schools and hospitals were built with the hard work and tax dollars of those who preceded you. In fact, virtually everything you use in your life has been made by someone else.
The peace that you enjoy has been delivered by the sacrifice of others. When you think about it, you know countless people who have made a difference in your life – some negative, some positive. Why not make a decision to have a positive impact on the lives of others, even if they are strangers?
Consider the following statistics:
- One out of every four people in the world is hungry.
- One billion people in the world do not have enough clean water.
- At least 200 million people are suffering the horror of war, imprisonment, and/or torture.
- Every few seconds a child dies from a preventable disease.
- One-seventh of the world’s population is illiterate.
- In the US, the world’s richest country, 3 million people are homeless each year.
There are also great needs within your own community. In the face of such need and desperation, you have two choices. You can decide to help others and change lives, or you can decide to do nothing and lose the benefits of giving. But remember, when people come together to tackle a difficult situation, they receive far more than they can ever imagine.
The Benefits of Giving
What are those benefits of giving? Here are some of the things you can gain by making giving a greater part of your life:
- new relationships
- a feeling of security
- good health
- a sense of empowerment, pride, and accomplishment
- peace and love
The paradox is that when you give expecting a reward, you won’t receive one. When you give with joy, selflessness, and love, you benefit greatly. The attitude you bring to your giving will reflect the benefits you gain. Parents share their shelter, food, and love with their children simply because they love them, and not because they seek their love.
Ultimately, the rewards are tremendous. Yet if you give money, time, or anything else with an expectation of a return on investment, you defeat the purpose of giving. This can be a negative lesson: you gave and you didn’t feel any better. This lack of “emotional reward” can lead to not wanting to give. Then you lose, as do those you could be helping.
Psychologists who study them know that babies (like all human beings) crave interaction with other humans. In fact, babies who are not nurtured by their parents or other caregivers wither emotionally from lack of bonding. Many of them never recover.
We believe that this is also true of adults. Without stimulating interaction with others, their souls shrink. Really, it’s only through connecting with other human beings that you learn about the world, about yourself, and even about your destiny. After all, other people are a mirror in which you can see yourself. This interconnection enables you to reach your full potential and to strengthen your soul.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, “Souls are like athletes who need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” That’s an insightful analogy, for just as your muscles weaken without physical exercise, so does your soul weaken without its special kinds of exercise. A great exercise for your soul is the practice of giving. As with physical exercise, the more you do it, the easier it is, and the stronger you will become.
Giving can also reduce your fears. That’s because giving promotes social connections, and these connections provide you with greater personal security.
Do you live in fear of economic disaster? Do you worry about caring for your parents or getting your children through college? Do you worry about losing your good health? Do you fear that crime, war, or terrorist attacks will disrupt the economy and your security? These are legitimate concerns that many people share. We live in difficult and uncertain times, but are these fears real?
Research shows that people who watch a lot of news on television overestimate the threats to their well-being. Why?
Because television focuses on news that makes the world seem like a more dangerous place than it actually is. Afraid of the world that is portrayed on TV, people “cocoon,” staying in their homes with close family, and do not build bonds with their neighbors. Thus they become more vulnerable.
The best way to confront your fears is to begin the process of making a difference. The root causes of “dangers” are often the result of social problems that have been ignored. But you can make a commitment to do what you can to eliminate the conditions that cause the potential crises. By facing your fears and working to change their root causes, you overcome them.
Giving is a key part of this process because giving reduces self-centeredness. It can make you more connected to others, and this connection will reduce fear and isolation. Author Robert Putnam’s massive research project, which culminated in the book Bowling Alone, clearly demonstrates the benefits to staying connected with others – for security, health, happiness, and even income.
Have you ever heard of a job opportunity through a personal connection? Have you ever had neighbors help you out during a difficult situation? Has a friend ever cared for your child when you were exhausted? These are just a few of the benefits that occur when you are connected with other people. The list is endless.
Academic research demonstrates that giving to others benefits people physically and emotionally. An article in the May 1988 issue of American Health magazine described a study in Michigan that showed regular volunteer work increases life expectancy. The study found that men who did no volunteer work were two-and-a-half times more likely to die during the study than men who volunteered at least once a week. The article described other benefits that the researchers measured. Giving, in the form of volunteer work:
- enhances your immune system,
- lowers your cholesterol levels,
- strengthens your heart,
- decreases the incidence of chest pains, and
- generally reduces stress.
The world can be a different and better place if, while you are here, you give of yourself. This concept became clear to Azim one day when he was watching television at an airport terminal while waiting for a flight. A priest was sharing a story about newborn twins, one of whom was ill. The twins were in separate incubators, as per hospital rules. A nurse on the floor repeatedly suggested that the twins be kept together in one incubator. The doctors finally agreed to try this. When the twins were brought into contact with each other, the healthy twin immediately put his arms around his sick brother. This instinctive exchange gradually helped the sick twin to recover and regain his health. The babies’ family and the doctors witnessed the intangible force of love and the incredible power of giving.
Living to Your Potential
Rumi, a 13th-century Persian mystic, told of a man who walked past a beggar and asked, “Why, God, do you not do something for these people?” God replied, “I did do something. I made you.”
When Rumi wrote these words, he was addressing our ability to choose what we do, our ability to reach our potential.
Most people use only a tiny portion of their potential, and many never find their true gift or calling in life. They never find a worthwhile cause to support, a cause that really means something to them and makes a difference in their lives.
But when you give to others, or give of yourself to meaningful causes, things change. You expect more of yourself. You discover new feelings of self-worth. Indeed, you begin to tap into your true gifts and talents. And when you do that, you are more likely to achieve your full potential, as you help yourself and others.
Until 1997, Azim was a professional accountant. In 1993 he also became head of his community’s social welfare board, where he volunteered 20 to 25 hours a week. This work led to an invitation to develop a budget for Focus, a humanitarian agency. He accepted the invitation and went to spend several weeks with Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
While in Pakistan, Azim saw many things that shook his soul. One in particular was his visit to an Afghan refugee camp, where he heard stories about how the refugees lived through war after war. Fleeing from Afghanistan with only the clothes they wore, a few of them had even seen their fathers being killed in front of their eyes. Some worked 14 hours a day, making only a dollar a day. Azim met Afghan children who were the same age as his own children. It made him think, “What if my children were in this predicament?” He had heard the statement that we are all interconnected, but for the first time he actually felt what this statement meant. As he was riding back to his hotel in a cab, he sobbed like a baby.
That night he could not sleep. He tossed and turned, asking himself how he could really help these people. Finally he realized that he would not be able to make a big impact as a professional accountant because he was not passionate about accounting. In this night of grief and pain, he made a decision to pursue his gift of inspirational speaking and writing.
That day in the Afghan refugee camp was a life-altering experience for Azim.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “To find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others.” Azim believes that by losing himself in his voluntary work during that trip, he found himself and got closer to achieving his full potential.
Finding Meaning, Fulfillment, and Happiness
All people want to achieve meaning, fulfillment, and happiness. However, thousands of years of human history confirm that these things come not from being self-centered, but rather from making a difference and giving happiness to others. Mother Teresa is a famous example. She found fulfillment when she helped change the expression on dying people’s faces from distress and fear to calmness and serenity. By giving herself to others, she made their undeniable pain a little easier to bear.
The Sufi Nasruddin (a Sufi is a Muslim spiritualist and wise person) tells the story of a person who is drowning. People shouted at the man, “Give us your hand so we can save you!” But the man was hesitant. Finally someone said to the man, “Take my hand,” and the man took it. This man was more familiar with taking than giving. He almost died as a result.
If you find yourself feeling unhappy, try making someone else happy and see what happens. If you are feeling empty and unfulfilled, try doing some meaningful and worthwhile work and see how you feel.
The catch is that you must do this work with passion and enthusiasm. If you are not passionate, it is hard to produce good work. You are less likely to feel fulfilled and happy or to believe your work is meaningful. In the end, you will lose energy for the work, leaving you with poor results.
There is a story of an elderly carpenter who was ready to retire. The carpenter told his employer of his plans to leave the house-building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife, as well as his extended family. The employer was sorry to see his employee go and asked if he would build just one more house as a personal favor to him. The carpenter reluctantly agreed. He did sloppy work and he used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end a dedicated career.
When the carpenter finished his work, the employer came to inspect the house. Then he handed the front-door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said. “It is my retirement gift to you.” The carpenter was shocked. If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently.
So it is with all people. Every person builds his or her own house, his or her own life, a step at a time, often half-heart-edly. Then with a shock they realize they have to live in the house they have built. If they could do it over, they’d do it differently. But they cannot go back.
You are the carpenter; your life is your building project. When you treat others in the way you wish to be treated, you are building with love and care. Always do your best because the choices you make today build your future.
A Rich Life
“A rich life,” writes philosopher and theologian Cornel West, “consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it.” Every one of us can have a rich life if we choose.
If you are wealthy but unable to share your wealth or give of your possessions and knowledge, you are not really rich. Conversely, if you are not wealthy but give of your self, your time, and your knowledge, you are indeed quite rich – and you will receive far more than you can ever imagine.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is always enough for the needy but never enough for the greedy.” Have you ever noticed how the needy frequently find a way to be grateful for the very little they have, while the greedy never seem to have enough?
If you are worth billions of dollars and have no people or causes to give your money to, what do you do with your money? How many houses can you live in? How many cars can you drive? How many meals can you eat? And even if you indulge in all of these things to excess, what do you do with the rest of your money?
There is a story of a wealthy businessman who never gave anything to anyone. A tenacious fundraiser approached the man to ask for a gift to a charitable cause, but the man refused to contribute. After much persuasion, the fundraiser eventually asked the wealthy man to pick up some good dirt from his garden and hand it to him as his gift. Wanting to get rid of the fundraiser and knowing the dirt was free, the man picked it up and gave it to the fundraiser, who then left. A few days later, the wealthy man, who was now curious, asked the fundraiser why he had asked for the dirt. The fundraiser explained, “I wanted you to taste the beauty of giving, even though it is only dirt you were giving. Once you taste the beauty of giving something small, you will eventually give something big.”
Of course, it would have helped if the miserly man from our story understood that the more you give, the more you receive. This may sound like a paradox – but it’s true. The more you give of yourself, the more you find of yourself. When you make a positive difference in the lives of others, you make a positive difference in your own life. Giving is a “win-win” proposition.
Author Earl Nightingale tells a story of a man who went to his empty fireplace and said, “Give me heat and I’ll give you the wood.” But giving does not work that way. In fact, giving functions under the universal law of cause and effect. You need to work for the wood before you get the heat. In other words, our rewards will always match and follow our service or, in the words of the Bible, You will always reap what you sow.
“When all is said and done,” says author Og Mandino, “success without happiness is the worst kind of failure.”
How can you find that happiness? It all comes back to giving. If you want to have happiness, you need to give happiness. If you want wealth, you need to give wealth. If you want love, you need to give love. For it is only in giving that you receive. Giving enriches your life with meaning, fulfillment, and happiness. It allows you to unleash your potential and create breakthroughs. In fact, it is a privilege to give. So give of your time, your knowledge, your wisdom, your wealth, and your love – and experience the power and beauty of giving.
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