The best lesson I ever learned about giving was taught to me by a homeless man. In 1992, I was newly degreed from an undergrad program and had been hired as outreach coordinator at a church in rural Pennsylvania. That winter, on an exceptionally cold and windy day, a man trudged through the church’s glass double-doors. He was thin; his beard and hair were scraggily and unkempt. His face, hands and ears were a wind-chapped red. His denim jacket had ripped-out elbows and he wore it over a long, beige raincoat that had seen better days. His canvas deck shoes were a dark gray, far from the white they had once been. His clothing was literally frozen.
“I was directed here from the restaurant,” he said, pointing to the little cafe across the street. “They said you could help me.”
The man, who said his name was Fred, explained that he had been hitchhiking from Georgia, trying to make his way to Canada. He has lost his job, had no family and thought he might be able to find work easier up north. But he hadn’t eaten in two days and had tried to sleep on a park bench the night before, but was buried in the foot of snow that had fallen.
His soft-spoken voice said all of this without a complaint.
The pastor and I decided we had to help. He called the local hotel and booked a room for Fred, while I ran across the street to the cafe and ordered bowls of soup, coffee and sandwiches. Our church ran a clothing bank so we could provide Fred with much-needed warmer clothes. I helped him find a winter coat, boots, gloves, a knit cap, a turtleneck, a wool sweater, heavy knit socks and jeans.
At the time, I felt good about being able to help someone in need. But then Fred surprised me and did something that has been forever embedded in my memory and changed my outlook: he folded the dirty, now thawed clothes he has just taken off and handed them back to the lady who ran the clothing bank,
“I no longer need these,” he said. “Someone else may need them more.”
I was in tears. Fred had been traveling for two weeks and had only the clothes on his back. He had gone without food and shelter, and yet he was content in his simplicity. At times, I wanted more than all of the jeans and sweaters and accumulation of stuff I already owned and the thought of giving some of those belongings away made me tense. I realized that my attachment to those things really meant the things possessed me instead of me possessing them.
By meeting Fred and witnessing his quiet, generous act of giving, I learned that the accumulation of possessions is only valuable if you can give them away. Each of us has gifts we have been given, tangible material items and intangible talents, skills and abilities. How are we sharing those gifts with others, in our households, our workplaces, our practices or with anyone with whom we come into contact?
Some of us find it much easier to give than to receive. Others are happy to receive but aren’t as strong givers. Fred seemed to understand that giving and receiving are a yin and a yang: they must be in balance for a healthy life. As John Amodeo, PhD writes, “Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin of intimacy. As I put it in my book, Dancing with Fire, ‘We may then bask together in a non-dual moment in which there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. Both people are giving and receiving in their own unique ways. This shared experience can be profoundly sacred and intimate.'”
So during this holiday season and as we head into the new year, take some time to contemplate your relationship to giving and receiving. In what areas are you willing to accept things graciously from others? In what areas are you willing to give generously? And where are you out of balance?
I’ve spent the last twenty-five years using Fred’s simple but profound act as a guide in my life, even though it isn’t always easy. And now that you’ve read his story, maybe he can inspire you, too.