Ten years ago, in the midst of a financial belt tightening, I decided to give more of my money away. I know that sounds anti-intuitive, but it’s a longish story that you can read about in my essay collection, “Views from the Home Office Window” (http://www.ellenblumbarish.com/ellensbook.html – see the piece titled “Money in Sight.”) The gist was that by letting a little of it go – not gripping onto it so tightly – I’d move money into the currency of daily life. Surprisingly good things began to happen.
It was a fruitful exercise because in the decade since, I’ve integrated giving into my monthly budget. I regularly donate to a number of health-related charities; public radio, environmental groups, the local high school and for natural disasters (which feels far too frequently lately, doesn’t it?).
Yet, since I’m writing checks or paying through my credit card, these contributions feel more like paying bills than making donations. Even though I’m technically doing something good for other people – or so I am hoping – I’m far removed from the people who will actually benefit.
And this doesn’t feel quite right.
Recently a friend sent me a link to a newspaper story about a 63-year-old unemployed man who is giving $10 a day for a year. At this writing he still didn’t have a job, but getting out there has kept him from going nuts from his job hunt. But most importantly, he was feeling really good about the giving part. In one case, $10 was just what one of his grantees needed to get a bus ticket for a job in another city.
Two things strike me about this. One is the amount: Ten bucks isn’t so much really; but you’d be pretty happy to find an Alexander Hamilton on the street, right? And two: the human part. He only gave a sawbuck to folks he could see, right there in front of him – people he felt could really use it. Sure he could have written a check for $3650 to one charity in one swoop – but, he wouldn’t have seen the faces of the folks on whom he made his small, but oh so impactful, impression.
Years ago, when I taught religious school at my synagogue, giving – tzedakah – was a primary curriculum subject. The 12th century Jewish rabbi, physician and philosopher Maimonides wrote that there were eight levels of giving. The lowest of these is when someone gives after being asked or solicited, especially if the person does so unwillingly or begrudgingly. Of highest merit, is giving an interest-free gift or loan, finding someone a job or entering into a partnership.
In the eyes of Maimonides, the ladder of giving looks something like this (from least merit to best):
8. Giving begrudgingly and inadequately.
7. Giving adequately after being asked.
6. Giving before being asked.
5. Giving publicly to someone you don’t know.
4. Giving anonymously to someone you do know.
3. Giving anonymously to someone you don’t know by way of a trustworthy person or public fund.
2. Giving a grant to a person in need.
1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need.
Maimonides believed that any kind of giving is good. But there’s giving and there’s Giving. Isn’t there a difference between asking for something and having it slammed down in front of you with a miffed look than someone offering to a loan – or a grant – to help you start the business you’ve always wanted?
I suppose my desire to give to people whom I meet, personally, fits somewhere near the top of that list. Perhaps I’ve simply grown out of my regular spot nearer to #6 and #7 (though I mostly have to be reminded.) It no longer feels like do-gooding.
If you are like me, fixated on the flow of money, most of the time – it might be more productive to find ways to give that feel like Giving. Fretting over it, keeps it in one pot. Giving a little, even just $10, benefits two instead of one. Isn’t that what money was made for: to circulate?