By Wendy Rush
Unlike generations that have gone before us, we live in an age of entitlement, within a society that is structured around “I” and “me” and the expectation of instant gratification as the reward for everything we do. While we scream loudly about our rights, how often do we hear about our responsibilities? And while we scramble over others to reach the dizzy heights of prosperity, how often do we overlook the miracle of one human being caring for another? As a result our society seems to be defined by those things that cripple it – crime, self-destruction, dysfunctional relationships, and lack of purpose. All those things that undermine our ability to build community.
Those with a true sense of community are also those who know what it is to give something up for another human being. Even giving where there is no possibility of a return.
The most prominent example of giving without expectation of a return is seen at Easter. Easter focuses on the act of sacrificial giving. Christ gave his life in order to offer us life, knowing full well that none of us can repay the debt or give anything of real value in return.
Quite often when we give something to someone – whether a gesture, a gift, a service or a compliment – we expect something back. At the very least a “thank you” or perhaps an understanding that the favour will be returned at a later stage.
The movie Pay it Forward tells the story of a boy who creates a wave of good deeds designed to impact on the other person. But implicit in the storyline is the expectation that these good deeds will eventually be returned.
In a society where recognition and reward for self seems paramount, one of the things we don’t seem very good at is giving for the sake of giving.
Giving because it’s the right thing to do.
Giving because someone is in need.
Giving because you have the opportunity.
Giving because someone else will benefit.
I once read a story about a student nurse who was charged with caring for a patient called Eileen. As a result of suffering a cerebral aneurysm, Eileen was left with no conscious control over her body. The medical staff at the hospital where she was being cared for thought she was totally unconscious – unable to feel pain and unaware of anything going on around her.
The hospital staff had to turn her hourly to prevent bedsores, and feed her twice a day through a stomach tube. ‘When it’s this bad,’ an older nurse told the student nurse, ‘You have to detach yourself emotionally’. Eileen came to be treated as a thing, a vegetable. But the young nurse decided to treat her differently. She talked to Eileen, sang to her, and even brought her little gifts. One Thanksgiving she said to Eileen, ‘I was supposed to have today off, but I couldn’t miss seeing you on Thanksgiving.’ The telephone rang and as the nurse turned to answer it, she looked back at the patient: Eileen was looking at her and crying. Damp circles stained her pillow. That was the only human emotion Eileen ever showed, but it was enough to change the attitude of the entire hospital staff toward her. Not long afterward, Eileen died. The young nurse says ‘I keep thinking about her … I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it’s like to give myself to someone who can’t give back.’
Increasing your life’s purpose and impact on the world must involve others – including those who are unable, or unwilling, to respond to your kindness. So what’s in it for us? According to Ian Anderson, flute playing front man for rock group Jethro Tull, “It’s only the giving that makes us what we are.”
Our capacity to give is directly related to our ability to love. Giving teaches us that love should, by its very nature, be unconditional. American philosopher Mortimer Adler said “Love consists in giving without getting in return; in giving what is not owed, what is not due the other. That’s why true love is never based, as associations for utility or pleasure are, on a fair exchange.”
If you are looking for your purpose in life, or if you are exploring your passion, don’t be surprised if you find the answer in your giving. At the very least as we reach out to others we will discover more about who we are. Like the young student nurse as she reached out to her patient Eileen, we may also encounter some unexpected rewards along the way.
Winston Churchill said, ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’
The selfless giving that we see at Easter can also be seen at Christmas. When we look at the Christ child we see a man, the Son of God, who chose to lower himself to our level, to take on the restrictions of a physical state like ours and to lead a life whose sole purpose was to give until it hurt – to give to people who could never adequately repay him. It was done out of love by a God who is love.
Let’s challenge ourselves to look for opportunities to give, to serve, to care, to love without any expectation of a response. Let the reward be in knowing that you have made a difference in the life of someone else.
And it doesn’t matter how much we try, we can never out give Jesus Christ. His advice on giving? “Don’t look for applause. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.”