Rev. Meg Barnhouse of First UU Austin has a piece up on UU World.org on the value of accepting help from others. She tells the story of being six cents short at the cash register and having it made up by a stranger who from appearances was much less well off than she. The (presumably) poor stranger’s charity bothered her – when she got to her car she dug out six cents and gave it to the man.
Would I have accepted an offer of help carrying something heavy to my car? Yes. He looked rich in physical strength, more than I was. I would have gladly accepted help from his wealth, but not from an area in which I assumed he was poorer than I. Allowing someone to help me out of their weaker place is too hard.
Rev. Barnhouse uses the story to examine her own stubbornness and illusions of self-sufficiency, and to encourage herself to be more humble and gracious in accepting help from others. I think there’s value in that lesson.
I want to look at this story from the other side. What can we learn from someone who gives from their weaker place? What can we learn from someone who gives from poverty? I see two important lessons.
When giving from strength we feel good. We like using our strength and we like doing good things. But the process of giving from weakness is the same as the process of giving from strength: we see a need, we have the resources to meet the need, therefore we should give. The difference is that when we give from weakness we fear that either our help won’t be good enough, or that we’ll give away something we’ll want later on, or both. But if the need comes from family – however you define “family” – we do it anyway. The family obligation to give and the desire to help those close to us are strong enough to overcome our fears.
When we give from strength we give our surplus – the things we don’t really need. That’s a good thing. I mean, we could spend it on yet another toy and tell ourselves the money will trickle down to those who need it. And the surplus of the very wealthy can be significant – I could give away every last thing I have and it wouldn’t make a fraction of the impact Bill Gates does giving away what he’ll never miss.
When we give from weakness we give something we’ll miss – we make a sacrifice. The word “sacrifice” literally means “to make sacred” – by offering a sacrifice we transform something from ordinary to sacred. When we sacrifice we affirm the reality of life: there are hard, unpleasant, dangerous things that have to be done and someone has to do them. Sometimes that someone is us.
When we give from weakness we affirm there are things bigger and more important than ourselves.
As with everything, giving from weakness has its limits. Don’t be the old lady who can’t pay her electric bill because she gave all her money to a televangelist – make sure what you’re sacrificing for really is bigger than yourself. And don’t neglect your true needs – our world needs heroes, not martyrs.
It is good to allow others to help you – good for you and good for them. It is good to help others from your strength.
It is also good to help others from your weakness.