The Art of Giving What You Don’t Have

What if we were to discover something very strange – what if we discovered that all our giving, our kindness and charity, had come from a place of lack and misunderstanding?

The time of giving and love is upon us, and it’s natural for the world to be buzzing about the beauty of giving. But this post is a little different. It’s about giving, yes, but not just the common misunderstanding.

What do I mean? For many, Christmas is about stress, fatigue, finding the right presents, endless parties and functions. For others, Christmas is loneliness, made worse by the fact that others are celebrating.

And many people yell back – “This is not the true spirit of Christmas! Christmas is about giving, about love!”

And what is the true spirit of giving? I was humbled to find out that even my definition of giving was wrong.

The true spirit of giving

A few weeks ago, a reader sent me an old essay by a Christian monk named Nicolae Steinhardt. I read it and enjoyed it very much at that time, but the full impact only hit me when I sat down to write about it.

I cannot explain it any better than he can; all I can do is rewrite it with a modern eye.

I was not foolish and unknowing enough to believe that Christ asks us to give from our surplus… I was however unskilled and lost in the darkness enough to think – what seems entirely in accord with Christian teaching – that we are asked to give from the little we have, if not even from the very little.

This hit me square in the face. We all know that giving from our surplus, giving a fraction of what we have, is not a sign of a big heart. But the common interpretation is – give all we have, that is true compassion!

And I had fallen into the exact trap he had, I had even referred to the same parable he did – a widow who had given her last copper coins to the church treasury. Wasn’t she displaying true compassion, I thought, giving everything she had?

“How blind, unwise, and of a narrow mind I was,” said Nicolae in his essay. “How could He have called us to actions so simple, so of this world, that is, so possible!”

Giving our entirety is not enough – it is too simple. We are asked something entirely different: to give what we do not have.

The man who did not have

Nicolae tells a story of a man who sought entry into a monastery, although he didn’t feel qualified. The man approached the abbot, and confessed:

Know, Father, that I have neither faith nor light, nor essence, nor courage, nor trust in myself, and I cannot be of any help to myself, much less to any others; I have nothing.

“How could such a man be accepted into a monastery?” one might think.

But the abbot replies, “What does that have to do with anything? You have no faith, have no light; giving them to others you will have them, too. Searching them for another, you will gain them for yourself. Your brother, your neighbor and fellow man, him you are duty bound to help with what you do not have.”

And with that, he accepts the man into the monastery. “Go, your cell is on this hallway, third door on the right.”

The thoughts of this man are echoed in the minds of many men and women around the world. I have neither faith, nor essence, nor courage. I cannot be of any help to myself. How do we develop these things?

How, indeed? The abbot’s answer: Giving another that which you do not have – faith, love, confidence, hope – you will acquire them as well.

The economy of the heart

The economy of the external world, the exchanging of money and material goods, is simple. Give, and hope to get something back. Simple mathematics – your wallet gets lighter as you give.

But the economy of our heart is different, it is the direct opposite. The more you give, the more you have!

This cannot be doubted; you must have experienced it for yourself. The smallest example is enough: when you play with a small child, and you laugh, and you give, and you kiss – you must have felt the love within grow stronger.

There is an excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly:

In May 2001, in a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, a Tibetan Buddhist monk donned a cap studded with hundreds of sensors that were connected to a state-of-the-art EEG, a brain-scanning device capable of recording changes in his brain with speed and precision. When the monk began meditating in a way that was designed to generate compassion, the sensors registered a dramatic shift to a state of great joy. The very act of concern for others well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself, writes bestselling author Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) in his extraordinary new work.

The state of abundance

And what of the external world? Anyone who has been in the world of personal development will have heard of all the metaphysical laws that have gained popularity recently.

I just said that your wallet gets lighter as you give. On the physical level, that cannot be disputed. But what if there is more? This is something I’ve always hesitated to write on, as I can never find solid proof of this – it is just book knowledge.

The classic success literatures, Think and Grow Rich, and the Science of Getting Rich, are based on one rule: Your inner world reflects the outer. Hold an abundant mindset, act abundantly, think abundantly. Believe you are rich now, and one day your external world will match it.

The state of lack

What you think about will determine your reality. I can’t speak for material riches, but I can speak of the opposite. If your thoughts are always on lack – of respect, love, money, whatever it is – then it will always be a part of who you are.

Believing that your needs are not met, believing that you don’t have something – that thought will sabotage everything, even if opportunity comes knocking.

When I was younger, I was extremely shy. I didn’t think that I deserved love, respect, or even a quality girlfriend. And because of that, whenever a girl would confess their feelings for me, I would sabotage the budding relationship unknowingly in one way or the other. Immediately my thoughts would jump to: Maybe she wants to use me. Maybe she is just lonely. Maybe this, maybe that.

And this carried over to money and business. I had lost many lucrative contracts and offers because of the way I thought.

Eckhart Tolle put it succinctly in A New Earth: Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world. Deep down inside you think you are small and that you have nothing to give. And if you don’t give, you don’t receive.

How do I give what I lack?

Steinhardt’s essay continues:

Let him not worry, not fear, not be anxious, the monk who feels his inner-self deserted, haunted by lack of belief and weakness, full of darkness and aridness; let him not mind these in the least.

Don’t fear your lack. Acknowledge it, yes. This is not asking you to pretend, this is not asking you to act as if you were cold in the middle of a burning summer. The problem lies when we sit down and we despair, when we think it is a permanent condition.

Give out whatever you think people are withholding from you. And soon after you start giving, you will start receiving.

This can be hard, Tolle acknowledges. So simply acknowledge the abundance that is already in your life. See the fullness of life all around you. Be grateful for it. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the magnificent display of flowers. The rain drenching you from the skies. Nature is abundant, we just have to open our eyes to see it.

Build your inner mind in this fashion, and let your life change to match.

Let the weak, thus, say: give me, Lord, when I am lost and naked, strength and impudence to be able to give from what I do not have.