Researchers who studied more than 400 older married couples found that those who provided emotional support to their spouses or practical support -- such as transportation and child care to friends and relatives -- reduced their chances of dying by between 40 and 60 percent over the subsequent five-year period. Receiving support, on average, had no affect on subjects' rate of death. (Psychology Today, November/December 2003)
Yes, Virginia, your mother was right. It is better to give than to receive. We all know that this is true and now there are studies to support its validity.
So why is it so hard to accept? Why do most of us continue to focus on receiving?
My children have a book entitled, "The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes" -- a cautionary tale about the dangers of this pervasive attitude. Of course the Bear children understand their mistakes and never remake them in the future. It's a little harder for real children.
Adults get the gimmes too; we're just more subtle about it.
And it's hard for real adults as well. We get the gimmes too; we're just more subtle about it. Our desires are more sophisticated, as are our rationalizations. And we've become adept at hiding our true motives.
In one of the eulogies of former President Reagan, he was quoted as saying, "You make a living by getting; you make a life by giving." Yet we devote much more time to amassing things than to donating them; to "killing" time than to volunteering it.
Judaism constantly reminds us that "when we give, we love." When we give, we care. When we care, we can be hurt. People can be ungrateful or even cruel. We're afraid that if we give, we'll lose. We make ourselves vulnerable and open when we give and we seem to be taking a risk. But what's the real downside? We'll grow no matter how the recipient responds. We'll become more open and loving no matter how the beneficiary reacts. And we'll reap the health benefits and character benefits regardless of the donee's behavior.
USING THE GIVING MUSCLE
There's a famous story in the Talmud of a Roman emperor demanding that Rabbi Akiva explain why there were so many poor in God's supposedly perfect world. Couldn't the All-Powerful God have provided for them? "Of course God could have erased poverty, but that would have defeated the purpose," responded Rabbi Akiva. "The poor are here for us. They're here so we can give."
Giving is a muscle that needs regular exercise. Observe non-profit organizations and you will notice that there is a small group of the same people giving large sums to numerous groups. These are people whose giving muscle is toned and in shape, and whose muscle stays that way through regular exercise. Then there are the untrained ones, those whose muscles are flabby with disuse and for whom the least bit of exercise is painful.
Call it cheap, call it confused, call it selfish. Call it short-sighted. For in the end, the person who most benefits from giving is NOT the recipient but the giver. Forget the gimmes, I want the givies.
Years ago at the funeral of a close friend, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on my time and energy. As I watched the coffin being lowered into the ground, I was struck by the thought that he could no longer give, that he could no longer help others. And I was grateful for the fact that I could. I prayed for most opportunities to give to come my way.
The Almighty leads us in the way we want to go. If we seek to give, a world of needs opens up at our feet. At the end of a day of shopping (you know, one of those outlet mall extravaganzas), I feel completely drained and depleted, barely able to function. But after a day involving chesed, kindness, I feel excited and energized (sometimes things that sound corny are nevertheless true!).
Giving is a choice that brings meaning and pleasure and love into our lives, and now we find out there's a bonus point -- we live longer as well.
This Rosh Hashana, pray to be a giver. Ask the Almighty for the strength and wisdom to help others. Pray for a renewal of opportunities. Pray that you'll say "yes" when they come your way. Pray for a chance to exercise your spiritual muscles. The Almighty has already given you the proper equipment. And pray for all of the Jewish people -- that we should be a nation that teaches the whole world (without necessarily using cartoon bears) to be givies not gimmes.