Almsgiving. You might think of this is as an archaic term, something you’d come across in a Charles Dickens novel. (Or else in a Monty Python sketch, poking fun at such old-fashioned language.) Today, we might phrase it as charitable donations or maybe even an end-of-the-year gift for tax deduction purposes. But it all comes down to the same thing: giving.
There’s a lot of talk this time of year about the importance of sharing financially. It might be easy to feel like everyone has hands outstretched, asking you for something. It may seem like a nuisance, but if you really think about it, you can probably contribute in a way that won’t really have any adverse effects on your overall lifestyle.
It’s not too difficult to drop your change into a jar by the cash register at a restaurant or add a few dollars to your grocery bill when the cashier asks if you’d like to contribute to a cause. And this is coming from me, a cheapskate both by nature and by necessity, from not having much money. Of course charities need money so that always is appreciated.
But I am going to suggest another type of giving, one that might be a bit more painful. I’m not going to advocate that you get rid of all your assets and become a mendicant on the street. But I’m going to challenge you to give in a way that is more personal, by volunteering your time.
The concept of almsgiving is part of the practice of many different cultures and religions, and it often includes giving of both money (or goods, in a more barter-oriented society) as well as time in the form of acts of mercy. Or as we might say in modern English, helping others.
I can imagine some of the objections that might surface here, how it would be much more efficient for you to just mail off a check somewhere. After all, you reason, you make a pretty decent hourly wage, so really, they’re getting way more out of you from your financial contribution than they’d get if you showed up in person.
That may all be technically true, but the reality is this: real almsgiving isn’t only about the money; it’s about the change that happens in you when you give. That’s why it can be so much more difficult to give of your time, as it is much more personal than material assistance. When you share your time you are opening yourself up to others, and that can be very frightening.
It can be extremely uncomfortable to witness the reality of other people’s lives, such as poverty or sickness. Perhaps this brings up unpleasant memories from your own life, or maybe you are confronted with your own assumptions and prejudices. To witness human suffering is most likely far beyond most of our comfort zones.
Support from family or friends can be very beneficial to encourage us to follow through on a volunteering commitment. Strength does come with numbers and can make the task seem a whole lot less daunting when we put ourselves on the front lines. Who knows, you could even end up having fun before you know it.
Or there might be a different surprise ending to your work: I’ve also noticed that many times I’ve gone into a situation thinking I’m there to be of benefit to this group of people, imagining myself some great patroness. Then at some point it dawns on me how condescending my attitude was at the outset. I realize that, contrary to my expectations, I am the one learning, from the very people I thought I was there to help.
The reality is that I was the one who needed the most assistance in the form of a lesson in humility, and I have grown in some way from the interactions at the event. I’d imagine you don’t get those sorts of insights by just sending off impersonal donations to faceless nonprofit organizations. As helpful as that is, it’s not the only aspect of almsgiving.
If you want to root out the garbage of your soul and get clean on the inside, then you’re going to need to get dirty on the outside through some real-life hands-on activities. And those experiences are a precious intangible commodity that money can’t buy.
Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website, stephaniehaines.com.