Why I Give to Others

helping others

This time last year, my family and I were living in the shell of a home that had been gutted by Superstorm Sandy’s flood waters. The first floor had been ripped down to studs, and we lived our lives on the second floor, a microwave and mini fridge my source for meals eaten picnic-style on my son’s bedroom floor (the only one with enough available floorspace).

It was a dark time. There were so many unknowns, so much waiting on forces out of my control (Would my contractor show up? Would the insurance settlement be enough?) and so much effort into putting on a good face.

With no kitchen, the kids loved eating hot dogs and chicken nuggets everyday, haha!

Paper plates make for easy cleanup! (smile)

In reality, these “conveniences” got very old, very fast. On top of all that, it was winter and dreary and cold. Finding joy wasn’t easy. But some days, it showed up when I least expected it.

There was the Target gift card I received from a woman I met once at a conference.

There was a gift basket from an iconic Michigan deli, complete with brownies and chocolate, bread and cheese, sent from friends we hadn’t seen in years.

There was a care package sent from co-workers I hadn’t worked with in nearly a decade, my favorite part of which was the card with at least 15 familiar signatures.

The packages arrived unexpectedly — gift cards, toys for the kids (they’d lost much of theirs), sweaters and coats and socks and hats. It was a cornucopia of all the things we never thought we’d need from other people. But we did.

This experience has changed my understanding of the power of giving. You shouldn’t give because it’s the right thing to do or because it gives you the warm fuzzies. You should give because you never know when you’ll be the one in need.

Having found myself in a situation of extreme, unexpected need, I now have so many regrets. When a friend lost his job, I shouldn’t have accepted his, “Don’t worry; we’ll be fine.” I should have slipped cash into his pocket. When my sister-in-law’s house burned down, I shouldn’t have listened to her attempts to calm me: “Don’t worry; the insurance will reimburse us for everything.” Having lived through the insurance tussle, I now know that is rarely the case. I should have done more, given more, because I now understand that people don’t know how to ask for what they need. And just because we don’t ask doesn’t mean the need isn’t there.

Giving doesn’t have to mean cash. One of the greatest gifts we were given after Sandy hit was the offer of a bed to sleep in. For six weeks our house was completely unlivable, and had it not been for cousins opening their home to us, that time would have been much more difficult. We would have had to take the kids out of school and stay with my parents or try to find a local hotel to live in. Having the warm embrace of someone’s home, someone to cook for us and reassure us, someone to distract the kids when my husband and I had to have the long, hard conversations that took over our time together — that was worth more than any amount of money.

Accepting other’s generosity is not easy. As cash was handed to us, gift cards mailed, bags of clothes brought to us, I thought of my great-grandmother who, even during the Depression when her children were forced to split a single can of beans, refused to take any “charity.” She was too proud to accept the help of others, even if that meant her children went to bed hungry. Did that mean I had no pride? I thought about this a lot. But then I realized something I wish my great-grandmother knew: When you let others do for you, you give them the opportunity for grace in their lives.

I believe this because I have lived it. I truly believe the more you give out to the world, the more you get back. There was the time, right out of college, when I spent $70 (an enormous amount to me then) to buy Christmas gifts for a family in need. Several days later, and completely unexpectedly, I received a holiday bonus from my boss of $700. Then there was the time a couple of years ago, when the economy was in crisis and so was my business, that I decided to cut back on charitable giving in order to tighten our budget. Less money was going out in terms of giving, but I instantly noticed that my sales dried up even further. Then, the very week that I decided to amp up my giving again, a flurry of new assignments came in.

Coincidences? Maybe. Karma? Possibly. The answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is that giving and receiving have equal value. When you give, it’s about more than just a check. It’s hope when hope has been hard to find. Love and comfort when both have felt far from reach. A reprieve from the anxiety that stirs the heart and makes sleep a stranger.

And when you receive, you learn that you are part of a larger network of people. You become keenly aware that it is much better to be part of a community, accepting the help of many, than to try and forge a way alone.

So give when you can. Receive when you must. And be grateful for both.

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