The Spirit of Giving: Like a King, a Ferryman or a Shepherd?

12/21/2010 09:33 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • C. Clinton Sidle Founding Director, Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University

A few years ago I arranged for students to do volunteer clean-up work for a local land trust. We spent the day cleaning up garbage that had been dumped on recently acquired property near family homes in a poor rural community. The day was wet but we had fun helping out in the muck, mire, and stench of the clean-up. By the end of the day we were tired and dirty.

In our closing, I asked everyone for their personal reflections. As we went around the circle, everyone was expressing their gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to help. Then we came to someone who was in tears. She said that the highlight of her day was when she went up to say hello to one of the families. They thanked her from the bottom of their hearts for cleaning up their "back yard." Now the children could play again in the forest without fear of getting hurt. We were then all in tears.

In giving, you receive. When you give something to someone else, you are often the one who feels best. Reflect for a moment on a time when you helped someone with a flat tire, given directions to a person who is lost, given up your seat to someone who needs it more, or simply given support to someone having a bad day? What happens to you inside? I'll bet your small act of generosity was the highlight of your day. Everyone is better off and you often feel a 'helper's high.' One of the fundamental truths of life is that none of us can sincerely help another without helping ourselves too.

I have written before about a time a when I decided to wrap up and cash in a basket of coins I had accumulated. Every day when I get home I empty whatever change is in my pocket into this basket. In the past, the change would disappear as my children would pick through it for extra spending money. Now in an empty nest, it was overflowing. So I threw the change in a bag and took it to the local grocery store where there was an automatic coin sorter.

It was Christmas season, and as I was entering the store, an old friend of mine was ringing the bell at a Salvation Army donation stop. I spontaneously handed the bag of coins to him and we instantly broke into laughter and appreciation for what we were both doing. That moment stuck with me as a source of joy and comfort for days.

Not only our Christian heritage but every one our world spiritual traditions points to the value of generosity to our happiness and well being. There is true wisdom in this. Our modern academic researchers too have shown that altruism and generosity bring a sense of well-being and good mental health.

But during this time of year, it is easy to forget this original meaning of the "holiday spirit." We get wrapped up in the process of giving but often along the way lose the true spirit of giving. As a friend once said to me, "We can lose God in prayer to God." We can give money, we can give time, we can give a piece of ourselves, but what is most important for our happiness, well being and the benefit of others is what is in our hearts.

Does your giving feel like single acts, as in giving to a noble cause each year, or is it more of an everyday experience? Who is more generous, for instance, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and a host of other billionaires who make one-time gifts of vast amounts of their fortune to create foundations and causes in their names, or the mothers in Darfur who give up meals each and every day so their children can eat? Both are important, of course, but I believe that the potential benefit to ourselves and others are greater if our giving is more of a way of life and comes without expectation of something in return. Imagine the ripple effect if we all lived our lives this way.

There is an old Buddhist metaphor that asks, do you give as a king who magnanimously shares his wealth with his people after it is gained, or do you give as a ferryman who ferries himself and others across the river safely together, or do you give as a shepherd who makes sure his flock is always in front and arrives safely first? Which do you think brings a greater benefit and sense of well-being?

I haven't always given of myself, but I learned to behave into a new way of being (another way of saying 'fake it 'til you make it.') I remember debating with a friend, for instance, about how I wanted to be more generous in my feelings with others but couldn't. Since I didn't feel generous, I argued, how I could I be generous? It wasn't authentic. Finally one day I just tried complimenting a friend, even though it didn't feel quite natural to me at the time. Surprisingly, not only was he was moved, but so was I. My acting generously aroused feelings of generosity.

Sometime later, in a meeting with friends, this issue of giving of myself came up again. They weren't satisfied with the emotional connection they were getting from me. So they challenged me to sit in front of each one of them, look into their eyes, and express what I saw and what I felt. To my amazement, squeezed in this way my intuition and my heart came rushing forth. Somehow, on a gut level, I knew both the gifts and the challenges each person had in this life and pointed to them accurately. In expressing this in words, I also felt a deeper appreciation for them. In those few moments, I gave myself totally over to each one of my friends and discovered a gift that I always thought was missing but was really there all along.

Giving in these little ways is now a big part of my life. We can all learn to give. Winston Churchill said, "We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give." There is real transformative power in giving, and that is the true spirit of Christmas.

Clint Sidle is the Director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at the Johnson School - Cornell University and author of This Hungry Spirit: Your Need for Basic Goodness (December 2009)