Tithing

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I have joined a new law firm and am making a little more money (let’s be clear: I am still not making “lawyer money”), and it has occasioned some thoughts on how I should spend it.  There are, of course, the necessities.  We needed a bigger house, and we need to save more for retirement and college.  I grit my teeth about these things, but I also have to recognize that these expenses are really investments, and that I am so fortunate that they are possibilities for me.  The thing I really, really want is a new car (I am from Jersey, after all), but my 11-year-old car has very low mileage and gets me from point A to point B just fine.

Right around the time I started my new job, a friend hit a very rough patch. She became homeless, jobless, and disabled. I was in a position to give money, but I wondered if it was the best thing to do.  For years, since I lived in New York in the eighties when homelessness exploded, I had always heard that you shouldn’t give money directly to individuals. They will be irresponsible with the funds.  They will use it on drugs and drink.  They will take advantage of you.  You should give to organizations.  And that way you also get a tax deduction, so you’re making money from your goodness!  So for years, I have dutifully given my money to Doctors without Borders, Womens’ Education Project, Capital Area Food Bank, Measures for Justice, and so on.  I tried to give 1% of my income annually, and I felt very good about myself.

My friend, however, needed more than 1%.  I started a generosity.com page for her, and people very kindly gave a bunch of money, but my friend still needed more.  She needed money for housing, food, and other expenses, and her family was no longer in a position to help. Was this the time to make an exception to the rule?

I don’t go to church, but I am of course aware of tithing.  It is the ancient practice of giving 10% of your income to the church, and it is followed to different degrees by many different religions and denominations.  It always struck me as a little crazy.  I mean, why would you give away 10% of your money?  What if you need it more?  What does the church even do with it?  Doesn’t it just pad the minister’s already comfortable wallet?  Does it go to fund causes I wouldn’t support?  Over the years, though, I have come to realize that most churches do an awful lot of good with that money.  They feed the hungry.  They travel to poor countries and assist the poor and sick.  They support their own parishioners who need help.

I have heard, conversely, that people who share my political persuasion are not always so generous (see Nicholas Kristoff’s piece, Bleeding Heart Tightwads).  Maybe it was time to live my values and start giving away more.  But what would happen if I wind up needing the money I give away?  What if some emergency befalls me?  What if my job ends?  What if my health gives out?  What if my children need it?  My parents have passed, but many people need extra funds to take care of their elderly parents. Aren’t I really being short-sighted by giving more money away?  And isn’t it wasted being given to an individual?  She’s not going to do an annual statement for me detailing how my donations were spent.  I’m not a sucker.

Then I read a story that really changed my view (courtesy of @BuddhistHumor):

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I knew immediately that I wanted to be more compassionate, like de Vicenzo.  But I thought about all the potential consequences I feared.  And then I asked myself, well, was I going to act out of fear or out of love?  Ninety percent of the things I worry about are not going to come to pass.  I know my friend is not scamming me.  I have my health (and health insurance), enough food on my plate,  a great community, work I love, a roof over my head, a car that works, savings started for the future.  I travel.  I go out to eat.  I have more than I need.  If something really bad does wind up happening, I have insurance.  I have friends and family and neighbors who will take care of me.  “Bad things” happening is not really what I fear.  What I really fear is my own improvidence: why didn’t I start saving earlier?  Why am I not as successful as other lawyers I know? The fear flows from attachment to money.  And like any other attachment, it leads to suffering.  If I didn’t give it away, a hoard of money would just tempt me.  Why not get those front-row Spurs tickets?  Why not go to Vegas?  Why not invest in that risky company?  Why not get my house redone?  Why not get a really amazing car?  Or even worse, it would paralyze me: “Oh, I can’t make this or that misstep or I will lose all my hard-earned money!”

I realize now what tithing really is.  It is an act of faith.  You can give away this 10%, and you will still be ok.  You could say it means you have God’s love or that you are building positive karma or that the universe will take care of you in some other way.  However you put it, though, it is a step towards living fearlessly.  It is also a statement of your values.  Though I have comforts and pleasures my parents couldn’t have imagined, I am still, in the end, a son of immigrants who came here from a country with unimaginable suffering, who worked really hard to come to the U.S. and even harder once they got here.  And after they got here,  when someone needed help, be it family, friends, or community, they gave it.  I am their kid. I am not a Vegas guy.

So I decided I will give 10% annually.  Maybe some years it will go to mostly to organizations, and maybe some years it will go to individuals. Maybe some of the donations will be to scammers or people who are otherwise “undeserving” or don’t spend the money in ways I would.  So what?  I will be living fearlessly and spreading love through the world.  I think the world needs more of that.

10 thoughts on “Tithing

  1. Great stuff. This topic reminds me of the related topic of spiritual discernment, i.e. the idea that if you can figure out, through prayer etc., what you are called to do, then you just do that. Saves having to answer all the what ifs and really simplifies life.

  2. Wow. I like to think of myself as one who gives freely, but do I? You hit so many of the subconscious fears I didn’t even recognize as existing. What a great message, and such food for thought to start the week. Thanks Ron.

  3. This is a really thought provoking post. As a bankruptcy attorney you must be faced with people’s relationship with money often. Their fear, their hate, their love, etc. I always have this fear I won’t have enough, but I have more than most on this planet. I have a fear it will disappear or I have to live on my savings in between gigs…but isn’t that partly what savings is for? What if I don’t have enough for retirement or the kid’s college funds? What if I have less than my parents had, since they worked hard and made good money while being frugal. All good things to ponder.

    I think you should also look at the 10% not only in money but also in time and possibly kindness. Sometimes a kind word or a helping hand can be worth more than $$.

  4. Ron, love this post! One of the things I did when I moved to Seattle was really commit to philanthropy. I’ve recently joined the Board of Make a Wish and it was one of the things that they asked me – did I give? It felt so good to say yes.

    I think it’s really important to talk about – not just that we give, but how much we give. When you hear a peer say they gave $1000 to a charity and you thought you were struggling with $200 it creates a new ceiling for our own abilities to give – even if i can’t give $1000, maybe next time I’ll consider $400 – you get where I’m going.

    The other thing I really like here is the “act of faith” observation. I was telling Pearly about how I had donated a car worth about $10K to a friend’s charity. I thought he would sell the car and put the money towards his foundation. But he kept the car. He’s an amazing person who is extremely generous with his own resources and time. I decided I was going to step out of judgement about him keeping the car because I knew inherently that somewhere that $10K would come back to the foundation in a non-linear, possibly even in a non-financial way. His heart is huge – I mean, this is a guy who raised 5 boys on his own as a single parent, and has recently adopted his brother’s three kids (his boys are in their 20’s). If he feels like the best way to benefit what he’s doing is to keep the car as a car, not cash, so be it. It’s so funny though how I felt like i needed to control my gift rather than trust that it would find its own way to make a difference.

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for your stories. I think you’re totally right that hearing concrete number and examples is empowering. One of these days, I am hoping to be as good a writer as you! Hope to catch up in Austin or Seattle one of these days!

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