One of the best things you can do with your money is give some away. The payoffs of paying it forward.
We have become very strange in this country about giving away our money. We only seem to be able to do it unconsciously. Dropping the loose change into the charity jar at the convenience store. Telling someone to keep the change because the untoward jingling in your pocket may disrupt the afternoon staff meeting. As soon as we start thinking about making a donation, we start thinking of reasons not to do it. Money's too tight at home. The person to whom we'll give it will spend it unwisely. The buck in the envelope is just a drop in the bucket. Oh, Lord, the problem's so big and my wallet is so small. The modern reflex seems to be that the worst thing we can do for a problem is to "throw money at it," even though very few problems ever get solved for free.
In fact, as much as we inveigh against it biblically, or deplore the heedless pursuit of it, money is one of the few things that truly unites us. Our common currency is, well, common currency in almost all our essential interactions, including our most beneficent ones. Warren Buffett, eBay founding president Jeff Skoll, and the Google people seemed to realize this over the past couple of years. By giving away their money, they cement together some vital elements of our commonwealth. Smaller transactions have the same effect. Over this past holiday season, a management group in Rhode Island gave its employees money on the express condition that the employees then give it away to someone else in need. The company then asked their employees to share the stories of their charity at a company meeting. Thus does the act of giving away money form a kind of oral history, from giver to recipient and then to the people to whom the story is told. There is a spark of the collective consciousness in that, which heartens not only those people involved in the transaction but those who hear the story and pass it along. There is something like art there.
When giving away your money, it helps to think of it as more than bits of paper and scraps of metal. That's not a $20 bill you're slipping into the envelope there. It's a bagful of flour. It's soup or a blanket or a bottle of medicine. That handful of quarters is a handful of rice. You can even make this art out of raw self-interest. Giving away money can be the most selfish thing you do. With a father and four of his siblings dead from the same disease, I can look at the check I send to the Alzheimer's Association and see something that is every bit as therapeutic as any new therapy that money may help create. I see new drug trials, and respite care, and a light against enveloping darkness.
There is nothing more visceral than cynicism, nothing more brutish than greed. These are reflexes, common and unremarkable, of the undeveloped spirit. But charity in its finest sense is always an act of the creative imagination.
From the March 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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