A few years ago, a close friend of mine was preparing an all-vegetarian meal for a Buddhist meditation retreat. She cooked all day, but things weren’t working out as she had planned. Exhaustion, sweat, and frustration dripped from her being. But she got it done, and the lunch was beautiful.
After the retreat, the well-known spiritual presenter wanted to meet my friend, who was surprised that he was interested in her well-being. She lightly unloaded her concerns of the day and then asked the workshop leader what had inspired his question. He shared his appreciation for the meal, but said that while he was eating, he could detect a taste of resentment in the food.
Giving our time or financial resources can sometimes be automatic. In other situations, there can be a hesitancy, requiring of us more thought and time. It’s what is inside of our decisions that matters. Giving time or money from a peaceful place enhances the experience of giving. I have heard so many excuses for not giving financially: “My budget is too lean; there is no room for giving” or “I’m giving too much of my time already.” I myself have sometimes felt justified in not giving financially because I was being generous with my labor. I swished my hands together: I’m getting it done. The place from which the giving arises affects both us and the recipient; paying attention to the why of giving is as important as the what and how of our gift.
I don’t want to minimize the truth and reality that have motivated centuries of Quakers to work for change in the world. I know that at times I’ve been so full of despair, anger, or impatience about injustices that I’ve worked late and suffered long, yet because of a grounded faith, I didn’t lose the frame of reference. The fuel for my effort was coming from an important place. Anger and hard work, well-channeled and held in the Spirit, are vital to this work. Grace can act like precious energy to an effective strategy.
But “getting it done” at all costs without that grounding is like splashing fuel at the car instead of letting it flow calmly into the tank. Our testimonies offer wisdom to those of us who are working so hard. From Margaret Fell on, Friends have given generously so that others could blaze enduring paths of integrity for future generations. Generous gifts were a part of the fabric woven through our history of courageous acts.
I rarely remember quotes or lines of poetry, but I will never forget a colleague’s comment from 25 years ago. We were working with the hunger lobby RESULTS, and I was complaining about the stresses of raising our foreign-aid budget for preventable diseases. She quoted from Thomas Merton’s 1965 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
I stewed on Merton’s words for days. I couldn’t believe my friend was calling into question the work I was doing. It took a number of years to truly grasp her message and Merton’s wisdom. It became a rich opportunity to understand myself better.
Over the years, I have benefited greatly from spiritual practices that nourish my spirit, body, and soul. I give of myself differently when I regularly attend meeting for worship, read wisdom literature, or honor rest on First Days. When I take time for myself, I notice my work for peace, the planet, and prosperity for all becomes laser bright. In this abundance, I donate more freely and generously. I am gifted with perspective and energy when I spend time with my husband or my women’s group, or go to a Korean-style women’s spa, or sleep late on the weekends, or play classical duets, or listen to poetry, or work out.
When we don’t carry that divine balance into our work, it’s as if the volume of our voice gets softer and softer while our agitation gets louder. The harder we work, the less effective we become if we’re running on fumes. Ask yourself: Am I not giving because I am exhausted, resentful, or already giving too much of my time? Sometimes I have wondered whether my limited financial giving was related to the burdens I was carrying: my depleted spirit, my need to conserve energy, or a need for rest.
As a nonprofit director, the work becomes fun and more valuable when our donors and volunteers have a strong alignment with our mission. They are often excited about their role and tell their friends about the fun they have when they give. It is the generous gift that keeps on giving, like a smile, an act of kindness, or a using our power to make things right.
It is always good to learn new tools and skills, but giving is easier when we use our gifts and talents. I’ve done policy work in the state legislature for many years, and I find it exhilarating and enjoyable. I casually shared once that if you’re not having fun in the legislature, you’re not doing it right. I’m not sure that’s always true, but there is a difference between work that is creative, innovative, and coming from a place of abundance and work that is driven, exhausting, and rushed. Feeling joy when I give somehow doubles the contribution.
The Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner once said that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” When we give from that place, we find it changes our experience and lets us reach a farther distance. It will change the condition we are in when we arrive.