Generosity. Giving. Charity. If there is one thread that binds all of the world’s religions together, it’s that generous acts should be encouraged. Charity, generosity, and giving to the poor are mentioned in the New Testament over 30 times, Zakat, or donating a percentage of your income to the poor, is the third of Islam’s Five Pillars, daana, or charity without expectation of a return, is a key aspect of Hindu teachings, and Buddhism celebrates even the simplest acts of kindness. Even the IRS encourages them by giving tax breaks for charitable contributions. But why is it so universal, and what does this imply? What does this say about humanity?
Every one of us have given a small bit of our abundance to those in need at one point or another. We’ve dropped a handful of change into a Salvation Army red bucket. We’ve slipped a dollar into the guitar case of a street musician or the cup of homeless veteran. One January when I was in college I saw a guy playing the tuba at 9 o’clock at night on a Chicago street corner. I handed him $5 (a big deal for a broke college student in the 90’s) and told him to get inside before his lips froze permanently to the mouthpiece. And this made me feel good. Really good, actually, and I’m sure that you’ve felt the same way if you’ve had a chance to do something similar. This is beyond simple conscience or empathy, beyond the norms of our society or the teachings of our religions. Something about being kind just feels . . . right, like an affirmation. Reaching out and helping another person feels genuine, like doing so is an acknowledgment of something. I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and I have a theory about why, but first I need to explain a little about my beliefs.
If I had to put a label on my belief system, the one that would come the closest is Pantheist. Pantheism is the belief that all of existence is an interconnected whole, and that this whole is, for lack of a better term, God. Not the God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, for those religions teach that the Divine is separate from Creation. Instead pantheism teaches that the Divine is existence, in a very real and literal sense. To a true pantheist, all of existence is holy, and the only sins come from fighting against the truth of our interconnection. Now, my beliefs deviate from this in quite a few ways, but that’s not important here. The key fact is that I agree that “God” is not separate from us, and we are not separate from each other. More importantly, I feel that the joy that we get from being generous is proof of this interconnection.
Take this experience we’ve been discussing, this joy of generosity, and apply it to other spiritual points of view. To a monotheist, generosity is an edict from on-high, a requirement from God to behave in certain ways in order to earn a reward. To a reincarnationist, kindness is merely karmic book-balancing, an attempt to work off negativity from previous lives. To an atheist, charity is an acknowledgment of empathy and a way to keep the unfortunate and unlucky from destabilizing society. Yet none of these explain or even acknowledge the joy of generosity. They see it as nothing more than happy aftereffect or a result of Divine-given conscience.
I look at it differently. Stop and consider for a moment how it feels to receive generosity rather than to give it. Once we get past any feelings of guilt or shame (which I believe is just an unfortunate result of living in a capitalist society), receiving succor also feels good. It feels like an acknowledgment that we are worthy, that we deserve kindness. Think about this. Being generous and receiving help both trigger positive feelings. If we are individual souls trying to earn salvation, reincarnated souls seeking balance, or just bodies and minds going through the motions of our brief existences, why would receiving help feel as good giving help? It doesn’t make sense.
Ahh, but what if we are interconnected? Then a logic beings to take shape behind all these feelings. Now, when someone is generous to another, it makes perfect sense that both would receive a similar positive emotion, for at a deep and esoteric level, there is no “other”. There is just one Soul experiencing things from different perspectives at the same time. Now, I know this is an odd, even alien concept for many people. We are all taught the myth of the Rugged Individualist, we are all exposed to the rather lonely philosophies of most major religions, and what I am trying to describe runs counter to these in many different ways. I am not here to convert anyone to any particular way of thinking, but I do want you and everyone else to think about this, and think deeply.
So the next time you feel the desire to give, stop for a moment. Look into the eyes of that street musician, that homeless person, that bell ringer. See them as another person with hopes and dreams, joys and disappointments, foibles and graces. And just for a moment, try to perceive in their returned gaze a flicker of that Divine Spark that lives in all of us, that crosses creeds, classes, and colors. Look for that moment of namaste, the God in me acknowledges the God in you. This is what generosity is truly about. It is a chance for us to express our interconnection in a real and tangible way. Few things in life feel more fulfilling, because few things in life better reflect what I believe to be the real nature of existence. I give to you because you and I are connected, and if you lack something, then at some level so do I. I receive from you with gladness, for I know that I deserve kindness and that you feel as much joy from this act as I do. In this way, charity may be the most holy act we humans can do.