Should You Really Give “Back”?

Challenging a common Millennial assumption.

My favorite class in undergrad was “History and Structure of the English Language.” Couple that with the fact that I’m a writer by profession, and it is not a far leap to understand that my natural bent is to question the very substance of the words we use.

So you’ll have to pardon me as I begin my relationship with you by challenging our deeply-held cultural value of “giving back.”

The very nature of the word give is bounded in our cultural consciousness. Giving is imbued with the native undertones of finance that ring through our society like coins in a Salvation Army kettle. Undertones like endow, allocate and entrust turn giving into a financial transaction. Of course, I know we can give more than money—we can give of our time and our skills. But in a culture where “time is money” and skills are tools to make money, do our ideas about giving merely entrench us further into our transactional nature?

Abstracted further is the idea of “giving back.” The word back has a long and complex etymological history. But it is enough to say that the idea of the back is an idea bounded in hierarchy. In our world, financial backers are a business support structure for an organization that cannot presently maintain itself. It is a support of the have-nots by those who have. And they expect a return on their investment. With these connotations in place, what can giving be but a transactional operation with hierarchical overtones? What a tragic notion!

No doubt, you are currently mentally reminding me of the poverty situation in the world and of the millions that are in desperate need of financial backing—the very support to continue living. Believe me, they are never far from my mind. On the wall of my cubicle are the faces of two children who would not know school or clothes were it not for my transactional, supportive “giving back.” And yes, I do receive something back. The fact that I have their pictures and receive their letters is a simple expression of my expectation to receive a “return on investment.”

Now, I am not so naïve as to expect this sort of transactional giving to change. I would even argue that it is essential and profound. And I truly believe that it will change the world. But those are topics for another day. Today, I want us to think at a higher level. Let us reframe giving both for ourselves and for a larger culture that communicates rather overwhelmingly by financial metaphors.

As I reframe these thoughts in my own life, a term I am beginning to use is devotion. It is from the Latin devovare, which means to consecrate. The word contains ideas of setting apart, of a service to something greater than one’s self, of a formal dedication to an idea, a religion or a cause. The term is weighty. And for a light-hearted culture desperately eschewing encumbrances, it is an uncomfortable idea.

By setting ourselves apart into service to others or into dedication to our causes we are taking on their inherent weights. We bear them, we chafe against them and on our most uncharitable days, we cast them aside for lighter things. But weight can also ground us.

We are a flighty, flaky people. Always afraid of missing out and always seeking the best option. But when the weight of devotion settles inside us, it has an unexpected effect. It allows our giving to become incarnate. It moves us beyond transaction into devotion. It is then that we see something wholly restorative. We witness a transformation of ourselves that cannot help but transform the world around us.

I have experienced this restoration myself. Often during university I was crippled by unceasing depression and profound anxiety. One day, the most unexpected person stopped in the middle of his busy, necessary work to simply notice me. His comment was gentle: “I can see that things are hard for you. I see you. And I am here for you.” His simple attendance to me and his devotion to me as another human was one of the most precious moments of my life. What I received in that place not only that day, but in the weeks and months to come was a devotion that quite literally saved my life.

This is what I want us all to move toward. I want us to internalize giving to something that becomes within us a driving force of devotion to others and to the world. Let us start to see our devotion to other humans without hierarchical or financial boundaries. In this devotion, the poor have as much to give as the rich. The giving will look different—but it will always be devotion.

Now, even as I write this, I sit mere inches away from the receipts for my charitable giving. Yet, I ignore the voicemail message beeping on my phone. I have “given back” while ignoring the very real devotion I should have toward a friend whom I miss and who I know is in need of my attention.

But this is the transformational nature of devotion. It sits on us as a weight revealing our weakness. And yet it grounds us by securing our commitment by its promises of restoration. It urges us to consecrate ourselves to a framework that is so outside that of our culture—yet so enriching to our shared humanity.


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