7 Non-Material Ways of Giving


Two days before a mother’s 80th birthday, her daughter asked how she would like to spend the day. “I want to climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty,” the mother said. Because the mother had a severe heart condition and because the climb meant going up 342 steps to the top, the daughter suggested using the lift.

“I want to climb the stairs,” her mother repeated. Though the mother had lived in New York City for most of her eight decades, she had never had this experience. The daughter understood its importance, because her mother was five years old when she first viewed the Statue of Liberty as an immigrant coming by ship from Russia.

The daughter agreed and suggested they do the climb three or four steps at a time, pausing to rest in between. Her mother was delighted. The ascent took six hours, during which time her daughter had many second thoughts about the wisdom of permitting an 80-year-old granny with a severe heart condition to do this. Nevertheless, they both persisted, arriving at the observation deck to enjoy a beautiful view from the top of the statue.

The incident is related by Rachel Naomi Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Too often, when people think of giving, the default gift is a material one. Yet the example of Dr Remen shows there are other ways to give. In her case, she gave her mother the gift of time.

“The manner of giving shows the character of the giver, more than the gift itself,” observed Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian. So when reaching out to someone in order to gift them, consider these seven nonmaterial ways of giving.

Give protection

One of the most famous and revered of Tibetan kings is known as Thangtong Gyalpo. He lived in the fifteenth century. Unlike other kings who became famous for military conquests, foreign relations or brutality, Gyalpo is remembered as being a bridge builder.

During his reign, he built hundreds of sturdy iron bridges over the wide Himalayan rivers that run through the Tibetan plateaus. Until those bridges were built—and some remain to this day—crossing those rivers could be treacherous, particularly in the rainy season when the rivers would swell and flow furiously.

In order to build the bridges, Gyalpo developed technologies that were highly advanced and original. Prior to his time, no-one had been able to build long, sturdy iron bridges. And so to this day, King Thangtong Gyalpo continues to be revered and appreciated by the people of Tibet.

Gyalpo’s life as a bridge-builder is a beautiful metaphor for a way of giving. Be someone’s bridge over troubled waters. When people face great personal challenges and feel as though they may drown in them, it is a good friend who appears and becomes their bridge to safety. Just consider the endless opportunities which come your way, often daily, to be just that kind of friend to another person. Give the gift of protection, a shelter during a time of emotional storm.

Give knowledge

If you have a special skill or body of knowledge, give some away to people who might never have access to it. If you’re a physician, treat someone without fee. If you’re an accountant, help someone with a financial matter. If you’re a lawyer, provide some legal assistance to a person who may not be able to afford it. Remember the words of the apostle Paul, “We have different gifts” (Romans 12:6), and his urging to use those gifts for the benefit of others.

Give insight

When a person is troubled and shares the difficulty with you, gently share whatever insight comes to you. Your objective wisdom may provide just the opening that person needs to step into a different direction.

Julie, a social worker, tells of passing an elderly woman sitting outside her nursing home enjoying the sun.

“The woman looked so peaceful that I turned around and pulled into the drive near her bench to ask if I could join her.” The woman invited her to sit and “to my surprise asked, ‘What are you avoiding on this beautiful day?’”

Julie was surprised by the comment, because she was dreading her next appointment. As a social worker she was on her way to visit a client who made her feel physically and emotionally drained because of ongoing deceit and manipulation. Julie explained to the stranger that she was dreading each day she worked on the case.

The elderly woman said, “Sit for a little bit, then go home and turn this case over to someone else. You’ve done all you can.” Though Julie had never given up on a case, she responded to the insight. “That very day, I made changes in my caseload that made my work rewarding again. I’m grateful for her wisdom and for helping me to recognise when to let go.”

Give kindness

There’s just not enough kindness on our planet. That may be why British author Samuel Johnson said, “To cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.”

Kindness is a highly prized virtue in Judaism. In fact, ancient Rabbinical teaching held that kindness was superior to charity for these reasons:

  • Charity is done only with money, but kindness can be performed by actions such as driving a sick person to a medical appointment.
  • Charity is given to the poor and those in hard financial circumstances, but kindness can be extended to both the poor and the wealthy.
  • Charity is given only to the living, but kindness can be offered for the living and the deceased by making funeral arrangements and comforting the grieving.
  • Charity is usually given when there is a need, but kindness can be offered at any time.
  • Give encouragement

    Be someone’s cheerleader in life. Applaud their efforts. Acknowledge their talents. Affirm their successes. Your words of encouragement can make the difference between despair and hope.

    A boy in nineteenth century London was forced to work as a clerk in a store because his family was destitute. For two years, he worked 14-hour days, becoming more and more despondent. Finally, he wrote a letter to a former teacher explaining he was heartbroken and no longer wanted to live.

    That teacher assured him that he was a bright, talented man who was destined for better things in life. He also offered the youth a position as a teacher’s aid. That small bit of encouragement changed the boy’s life. His name was H G Wells, and he is regarded as the founder of modern science-fiction writing because of books such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds.

    Give comfort

    The next time you come across someone hurting from life’s blow, grieving a loss or frightened about the future, give the gift of comfort. Also, consider extending this gift to creatures as well as people you encounter.

    Be vigilant in looking for an opportunity to help a helpless creature. That’s precisely what one couple have done when they opened their home and property to provide end of life hospice care for cats and dogs. Many of these creatures were abandoned by their owners. The couple take in animals who are terminally ill and provide them with love and care for their final days. Rather than euthanase them, this couple sits with them, being certain that an old dog or a frightened cat is not alone at the end but dies in the presence of people who love and care about them.

    Give smiles

    This is so easy to do and yet is often left undone. Smile at your partner. Smile at your colleagues. Smile at children. Smile at friends. Smile at strangers.

    “No matter where you go, or what language people may speak, everyone in all cultures and countries understands and responds to a smile,” writes Joe Vitale in his book Life’s Missing Instruction Manual. “When you are walking down the street and see a stranger, a smile can cause them to feel better— about you, their world, their day.”

    When you give, be guided by this wisdom from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca: “We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly, and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers.”

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