During the holidays many of us take the opportunity to reflect on our good fortune and to help others in need, and that is always a good thing… isn’t it?
It is true that giving to those in need is good, in theory. In practice, however, the gifts we give can also have unintended consequences if we are not thoughtful about how those gifts are being received.
In other words, how we give is just as important as the act of giving itself.
When my oldest brother was in his twenties he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes progressive kidney failure. For many years the disease had little impact on his life; however, by the time he turned 50, his kidney function had deteriorated to the point where he had to go on dialysis and be put on the transplant list.
At the time, my other brother offered one of his kidneys, and if he had been a match, it would have been a perfect solution. But there was a catch. My brother was willing to donate a kidney, but only under certain conditions. He needed to be kept aware of all of the doctor’s appointments and what information was being shared; he needed to understand what would be required of my brother before, during, and after treatment; he needed to be aware of any restrictions and lifestyle changes my brother would need to make as a result of being a transplant recipient.
In spite of the fact that a kidney donation would have kept him off of dialysis and prevented him from having to wait for a kidney on the donor list, my brother did not pursue the offer of a kidney. Why?
In the 12th century, a Jewish scholar named Maimonides, also known as Rambam, created a “ladder of giving” that represented what he considered the levels of virtue associated with different kinds of giving. The higher the rung on the ladder, the more virtuous the act of giving.
- The Lowest: Giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel disgraced or embarrassed.
- Giving happily but not giving enough.
- Giving happily and enough, but only after being asked.
- Giving before being asked.
- Giving when you do not know the identity of the beneficiary, but the beneficiary knows your identity.
- Giving when you know the identity of the beneficiary, but the beneficiary does not know your identity.
- Giving when neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of the other’s identity.
- The Highest: Giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else would enable a person to be self-reliant.
As philanthropists, most of us fall onto the 2nd or third rung of Rambam’s ladder. We will make donations to causes we care about, and do so happily, but often it is not as much as we could give, and frequently it is only after being asked.
As we move up the rungs on the ladder we move closer to a state of pure altruism, where the act of giving is focused on lifting others in a way that allows them to keep their dignity, and allows us to give freely and truly from the heart, regardless of the benefit to us. This type of giving is harder to come by.
When I think about my brother, I understand why he refused the offer of the kidney, even though it would have been the best decision for his health. He could not receive the gift because of the spirit in which it was being given. He did not want my brother to be his keeper.
As I think about ways I can help those in need this holiday season, I plan to keep Rambam’s Ladder in mind and to ask myself, “What is the spirit in which I give this gift? Is there more I could do?” Though reaching the 8th rung feels like a difficult task, perhaps if I strive to reach that level, the next rung isn’t as far away as I think.