I grew up being told, “Your talents are a gift from God, intended to help others.”
I was told over and over again that I needed to find ways to use my skills (by which they commonly meant my intelligence) to enhance the lives of other people. My mother dreamed of me becoming a doctor.
This service mentality was further reinforced by the religious environment I grew up in. I grew up in a Southern Baptist camp. Everyone made abysmally low salaries and felt their lives were a “service” to bringing souls to Christ. Qualities like sacrifice and generosity were lauded as the highest.
We were encouraged to tithe our money. We were told to be forgiving of those who spoke ill of us or wronged us. We were encouraged to volunteer our time to help those less fortunate than others. We were lectured to be kind to others and think nice thoughts. We were taught to give the shirt off our backs to others.
It was all modeled off of Christ, who literally died for the sake of others.
That was the standard. Let yourself die for others. Sacrifice. Suffer. It is good.
The problem is that way of living doesn’t feel very good. When we deny our own needs, we become depleted and exhausted. We continue to slowly kill ourselves until we become ill, resentful, or worse.
This kind of mentality also places the focus on “shoulds.” What you “should” do. It makes generosity a very cerebral event, instead of coming from one’s heart. When a person is cut off from their listening to and meeting their own needs, it means they also aren’t attuned to their own intuition.
This also leads to a concept called white saviorism. It’s when a person thinks they need to save others, and they know just how to do it. It comes from white supremacy and white Christianity. A good example of this is when Christians march into Africa on mission trips wanting to “help the Africans,” but do not actually know anything about the people or what form of help they might want or need. Typically, white saviors just want to help in the ways they “know best” and then go home with slideshows of their mission trips that serve as inspiration porn for others.
My assessment sounds harsh. Someone from one of these mission trips would decry, “But I just wanted to help.”
I don’t deny that. I have gone on mission trips. I have been that person. I did truly just want to help.
However, I was so focused on “helping” that I wasn’t stepping back to evaluate how I was helping, the long-term consequences, or what my true intentions were.
I now understand we are far better equipped to help people and situations in which we have personal experience.
I also know that a depleted, exhausted soul is not the well-spring of generosity. I know that the more we take care of ourselves, the more we can give from a resourced, nourished place. Now that I make sufficient money and have more time in my schedule, I can choose whether to give my money and/or time. I can take a breath to discern the best way to help.
However, in my current journey, I admittedly don’t always know the best way to be generous. Now that I’ve had far more lived experience, I know generosity is complicated. For example, sometimes people don’t want to receive money for nothing or as “charity.” They find it demeaning. I am also far more mindful of who I donate to, making sure they’re not living white saviorism.
If I am intentionally seeking a way to be generous, I often find it hard to know the best way to do that. I am autistic and a therapist. Being autistic means that I have limited energetic capacity. As a therapist, I have an energetically demanding job. I want to show up fully for the people in my personal life, and that means I have to be mindful of the number of clients I see in a day. I do not have the energetic capacity at this time to be more generous with time to others.
What I do find far easier is unplanned moments of generosity. For example, if I see an elderly neighbor struggling to carry her groceries, I try to help. Or whenever I pay for food or services (like an oil change,) I try to leave large tips. I know individuals working in these positions accept, appreciate, and need an extra boost.
I also like to invest in local businesses and people who are trying to get by, such as purchasing extra products beyond what I was just wanting.
In some ways, this is not generosity. I am paying them for a job. This is where generosity comes back to being confusing to me.
I want to give generously, but I want to avoid the traps of self-sacrifice and white saviorism. I want to help in ways that matter to the person receiving it.
I admittedly don’t have the answers. I just have to trust they will come with time on this journey.