Is “Giving” Complicated?

Who isn’t overwhelmed when natural disasters occur? We want to help, but we aren’t sure how to do it. Yet every day, in some manner, we have opportunities to make a difference in other lives.

And we choose not to.

Sometimes, it’s the protective habit of not seeing, because we do not wish to see. It is painful. It makes us feel guilty. Not seeing becomes a passive choice: We step over the legs of the sleeping homeless person, hurrying to the subway entrance; we turn our heads and face forward, when the stranger solicits with a sign, and approaches the car at a traffic light.

The plate is passed in church and we reach into the pocket and pull out a few dollars. We feel good about ourselves. The end-of-the-year requests for donations arrive, and we dutifully write out checks, in a spirit of generosity, and awareness of a tax deduction.

So which is it? Easy to give, or complicated?

Do you give or look away? Do you feel as though you give too much? Are you paralyzed by all the situations that could use assistance, so you do nothing at all?

World Events

This morning, Michele at Eyes on the Big Picture walked through her thought process when it comes to giving, in her response to yesterday’s post. That got me to wondering about the complexity of the topic, because I agree with her that it is complex. We have opportunities to help each other daily – but we don’t. Yet when catastrophic events like those unfolding in Japan occur, we are momentarily more open and simultaneously more introspective. We examine our motives, our actions; we find gratitude in what we have, and we want to help, to alleviate suffering.

But who wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task? As the situation worsens in Japan, will it stop us in our tracks – or mobilize us?

Types of Giving

Of course, most of us give of ourselves daily. There are many types of generosity, not the least of which is generosity of spirit – the smile that may make a difference to someone having a rough time. The kindness with which we interact with our families, even on little sleep and chaotic schedules.

Some of us are people pleasers by nature; we put the feelings and concerns of others before ourselves – sometimes to a fault.

We give in so many ways:

  • To those we love
  • To our co-workers
  • To our communities
  • To strangers
  • To a cause
  • To our environment

And we do give to strangers, though we seem to be hit-or-miss about the process. There are days when we respond, and others, when we walk by.


Some of us actively give our time, skills, efforts, and commitment to causes and community through volunteering. Perhaps we work for a religious group, for the school system, for the Boys Club or the Girls Club; perhaps for an organization that is working on research in the medical field.

Somehow, focusing on children or health issues feels more comfortable than helping the stranger on the street – or for that matter – your neighbor who is going through a divorce, a job loss, a foreclosure on their home.

We are making a choice to put our giving into something we believe in. We are making choices that are less “sticky.” We are making giving about choice.

Giving vs. Giving Back

I certainly believe that as we mature, we are less inclined to be driven by the profit motive – that of an employer or our own bank accounts. We begin to feel a responsibility to give back – to put some of the gifts we’ve received back into circulation. We do this with acts of kindness. We do this by paying closer attention to our environment – not wasting food or energy or other resources. We do this by making lifestyle choices – to live more simply, more humanly.

Some of us are explicit in trying to teach the importance of giving back; we raise our children in examples of giving.

“Not My Problem”

But Western life is hectic and pressured. The pace we live at is challenging to say the least. Our economy has pressed many of us into a survival mode to keep going that we wouldn’t have thought possible, and so our walls are up, our energies conserved as best we can – just to take care of “our own.”

To get through the day.

It’s not that we don’t care about others; it’s that we’re overwhelmed by our own lives, and so we hurry along and adopt a stance of “not my problem.” Maybe we do so expressly. Maybe we do so without realizing.

Fear, Foolishness, and Other Factors

So why don’t we give?

Like you, I have passed those with their hands out. Fear kept me from interacting. There are also times when I reached into my pocket and handed over a five.

When solicited by mail for a cause, I may have wondered about the legitimacy of those requesting my money. In this household, every dollar matters. I’m happy to give, but who wants to feel foolish if there’s a chance it’s a scam?

And yes, it’s complicated. Even simple acts of kindness, like taking the time to listen to the bagger at the market, could derail my day in terms of time. But in that case, I didn’t hesitate, though I was frustrated that I couldn’t help.

Does that mean we don’t give out of frustration? In fact, our giving to strangers or causes – is it really any different than not investing in new friendships, or more deeply in those we’ve held for years?

Why and When?

So is giving far more complicated than we know?

Sometimes, it’s easier to give money than time or skills. I see nothing wrong with that – though I worry at times about the so-called overhead in charitable organizations. I often wonder how much of my contribution is really going to those who need it.

All the more reason to pick your battles (so to speak), do your homework, and give where it will really make a difference?

  • How do you decide to whom you will donate your time, your money, your effort?
  • Do you apportion parts of your heart to your family, and others to strangers?
  • Is contemporary life simply so stressful that “giving” falls off the list?
  • Why is it that often – in my experience – those with the least give the most?



To learn how you can help with Japan relief, check here on Huffington Post.



© D A Wolf




  1. batticus says

    After the Haiti disaster (I had a friend that had just arrived a few days before the earthquake to help refurbish a school), I revisited my “occasional” donation mode and searched for a focus to my monetary giving. I ended up with regular donations to “Doctors Without Borders”, timely medical help is critical in any disaster and with regular donations, I know I help keep their organization ready to respond immediately. My time donations go to an organization that provides access to garden plots for apartment dwellers, this kind of thing may be available in your city for the woman from the grocery store?

  2. Jenn says

    I am a bleeding heart giver. If I am solicited I give, it is not complicated the person or organization is asking for a specific request. My husband has had to put limits as we can’t afford to give it away at times. I once bought $50 worth of light bulbs from the blind! Where it gets complicated is when someone is in need of help and won’t receive the help be it monetary, child care or whatever due to pride worrying that they will have to reciprocate, etc. It is difficult to ask for help so often I just try to assess what needs to be done and just do it, silently behind the scenes.

  3. says

    Very good post – it IS complicated. We are heavier in time donations than cash donations, although I’ve figured that car-related expenses and unexpected costs of Fran’s volunteer work with refugees in Phila is actually our largest “cash” donation. These U.N. refugees are fully legal and many have suffered loss of family members in the disorders in Burma. Some of my acquaintances have criticized our government and volunteers for helping these refugees, when there is so much need at home. But help is so inadequate relative to need when they arrive here, that Fran would now recommend that most refugees are better off eating U.N. supplied rice in crowded refugee camps than coming to U.S.A. – no land of opportunity for those with no education and who don’t speak English. I focus on resistance to warfare and war spending (e.g., as a war tax resister), with a positive emphasis on working for justice and diplomatic solutions to conflict ( ) Quaker work is volunteer based and focused on getting folks self-sufficient in a peaceful world. I have found that the world’s problems are so immense that I do better to carefully select certain issues for my focused involvement, and these issues are often in areas where relatively few others are active or as knowledgeable as I am, and so my time (and limited money) can make a significant difference..

  4. says

    I feel I should give more than I do, or than my budget truly allows. Times of disaster usually prompt me to do what I can, but I always have a concern about the legitimacy of organizations collecting donations and about how much of the donation actually goes to those in need.

  5. says

    I wrote a post about this back in January. I’ve been raised to be a big giver of my time. I do a little less now because I have obligatory “volunteer” work for the kids’ sports and schools. In general, I think it’s easy to give. You just need to find what motivates you, what you’re passionate about. And personally I think time is better than money.

  6. says

    A related issue is how do we allocate our time/money contributions with respect to our partner and/or family (Fran’s stepson is with us now.)? This can be difficult for some activist families, particularly those with different commitments. At the moment, much of my “donation” is helping Fran with her refugee work and also by taking public transport to Villanova when she has the car. When I organized a bus load of students for a D.C. demonstration, a group wandered ahead of the march to “see what was happening” and got lost by a “big white building with a flag” and almost was arrested. I was frantic; Fran rounded them up, somehow.

  7. says

    When I think about what’s wrong with the human world, it always comes down to moneyed interests over people interests. To me, that’s the big picture, which, in the U.S., translates into the need for campaign reform. So I channel some giving there. But the difficulty is overwhelming and it’s easy to get disheartened. Joanna Macy’s words against despair have always been a comfort.

  8. says

    I’d like to give my time, but inevitably I come up with excuses of why I don’t have the time to give my time. I do donate, but with careful consideration. I have various friends that work for aid agencies and have educated me on the complexities of giving money to organizations. Recently, after the Haiti earthquake we donated money. We were fortunate to know a doctor who was going to Haiti to help. The money went directly to her and she sent pics of who she was helping and the what supplies were bought.

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