Sunday, August 28, 2011


Today Mike and I are friends. We’ll talk when we see each other which usually means I’m headed home or to something after work and even though I’m going to be late, I still stay and talk to him. He trusts me. He gave me a card once to the person who schedules people at a particular shelter. He wanted me to look into it since the guy wasn’t getting back to him (I’m not sure how, I don’t think Mike has a phone).

But my interaction with Mike makes me think about giving. Now, there are certain philosophical schools of thought that would say we’re all hedonistic or epicurean-like in that we do everything for selfish reasons. If we help someone build a house, clean up the yard of an elderly woman, adopt an orphan, or give money to the poor we do so for selfish reasons. We want to get an award; it looks good on our resumes; others think more highly of us; it makes us feel good; etc. The tough portion about disagreeing with this particular philosophical conclusion is that it’s perpetually defensible. How do you show you’ve done something for an unselfish reason when it can always look good or feel good to do something for someone else or when there were always invisible strings or conditions attached? Imagine a person who gives all kinds of wonderful gifts to a beloved in the name of love. Then when the relationship is over, what happens? This same person might demand certain gifts back evincing that the gifts were never unconditional gifts but gifts given on the condition that the receiver would continue to love the giver in return. Is there a way to commit a real act of love or really give?

Good question. The next attempt to get around this problem is to give without the receiver knowing who gave. Nice. This avoids receiving pleasure from the gratitude of the receiver since the gift is anonymous. However, there is still the joy of knowing the recipient is grateful to someone and that you have made someone happy.

So perhaps a purer gift (our next attempt) would not just be an anonymous gift, but perhaps a gift where nothing is given. A good example of this by philosopher Rollins is forgiveness. When Marcius has wronged you, you can offer forgiveness to Marcius, and you will have given nothing (no thing) because forgiveness is not a thing. The problem, though, is that you can receive personal pleasure from knowing that you did the right thing, looking spiritual, or having Marcius’s apology accepted. So then you might add the first criteria, anonymity, to the act of giving nothing and try to offer forgiveness without telling the offender or without the offender knowing that they have been forgiven. Now this avoids satisfaction from seeing the offender have his apology accepted or seeing you as a super spiritual person. But this anonymous gift of nothing still suffers from the fact that you can feel self-satisfaction or pride for having done something amazing.

So then you can add a third criteria. Give anonymously so the receiver doesn’t know who gave; give nothing; and give anonymously so the giver doesn’t know a gift was given. Huh? This is hard to explain but imagine giving a gift without knowing you’ve given anything. In this way you give a gift so naturally it’s like breathing. At times you don’t notice your breathing. Or giving is second nature like the beating of your heart or the regulation of hormones in your body. It’s natural, constant, continual, and steady. It’s done without thought. This is the type of giving you see evidenced in a woman's life when she is thanked for something and she, the giver, responds “For what?” This is true love of God – a love that gives with the same reflex that causes a bird to sing. It’s a love that gives money to a beggar on the street without stopping to think if he should give or gives of its time to someone who is in pain or in the hospital without any thought that this is any different or special from any other act on any other day. That’s love. And it’s shown not to the loveable but to the unlovable. The trouble is, you can’t simply choose for the reflex to be there. It comes about in another way which we may talk about later.

When one can do the works of virtue without preparing, by willing to do them, and bring to completion some great and righteous matter without giving it a thought – when the deed of virtue seem to happen by itself, simply because one loved goodness and for no other reason, then one is perfectly virtuous and not before.

-Meister Ekhart, quoted in “How (Not) To Speak of God”

No comments: