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by Anne Udall

March 7,2008

If you have time to read this article, you have discretionary resources at your disposal. In other words, you can ‘give back.’ Giving back means: We have more than we need or can use; We are only custodians, not owners, of all the blessings we experience. We have a responsibility for others – we are our brother’s keeper, or in the 21st century lingo, our sister’s keeper. To quote Marion Wright Edelman: Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.

I have had remarkable role models in my extended family who have showed me what giving back looks like. For a long time, I thought I got to rest on their ‘giving back’ laurels; borrow from their ‘giving back’ deposits. And because my day jobs have always been about community engagement, I thought that also counted. In short, I have been taking it easy in the ‘giving back’ department.

Yet, in my 15 years in Charlotte, I have slowly learned, from so many mentors in this community, some life lessons about our responsibilities to others:

1. We don’t get to ride on our parent’s efforts, our friends, or our siblings. Nobody covers our rent for us; we have to pay our own.

2. There is no right way or right amount or right thing to give back. It takes multiple forms – time, money, love. It all counts. Or, as a minister said once: "So many people say they want to save the world. Just try your block, will you?"

3. Do not compare what you give back to anyone else. You devalue them and yourself. Nor does the excuse I used for a long time work: someone else is doing that for me.

4. When we give, we get. Peyton March said: "There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else.” I would add love as well. 

5. We can only give back if we expect nothing in return. Don’t try to calculate the ROI of what you give. And try not to count your day job as giving back – if you are getting paid to do something, it really doesn’t count. The idea of giving freely, without expectation is a basic tenet of every faith in the world.

6. Before giving to others, we must learn to give to ourselves.

7. If giving back is easy for you, then your challenge is to let others give to you.

8. Giving back feels good. Abraham Lincoln once said: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.’

9. Do not hoard your abundance. I have learned more about giving back from those who have the least. IF you have a lot, give more. 

And now the flipside, equally as important – taking less. I have just finished reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a provocative look at what could happen to the planet should humans manage to eliminate ourselves off of it. A great read; highly recommended. There are two salient points for the sake of our conversation here. The first one – the planet will be just fine, after a number of trials and tribulations (plastic’s inability to disintegrate; nuclear power plants melting down, etc.), but the abundance of life will not be extinguished, and in fact, will probably flourish. The second point – our lifestyles are simply unsustainable on the present course. Just take a moment to reflect on all the ‘stuff’ you claim – your clothing, the food in your pantry, the computer, the furniture, the pots outside with the flowers, the books, the holiday decorations, the car, the new HD TV, and the list goes on. And multiply that by billions of people who have or want the same. The earth is a closed system; there is only so much to go around. Consuming at this rate, as if there are no consequences, will kill us – not the planet, but us. Giving back cannot justify the taking of more.

So, for those of us who can give back, we have to take less as well.

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