In various cultures and religious traditions there is an obligation to “give back” a portion of one’s wealth. In some countries, such as in India and Sierra Leone, there is a custom where a young person’s first paycheck goes to the parents as a token of gratitude for their support. In other, more traditional cultures, a portion of the hunt or harvest is given to the head of the community. It is then used for visitors or redistributed to those in need. Either way, there is a degree of benefit taking place: if you put into the communal pot, then you benefit from the communal pot. (This is above and beyond what is rightfully the property of the individual, especially when it comes to being able to benefit from the amount of effort and ingenuity they put in previously.)
In numerous religious traditions, the concept of returning a portion of one’s wealth to God (be it paid in olives and wheat, or the local currency), paid to the head of the religious community, is an obligation. While the technical measurement of tithing, Zakát, or Ḥuqúqu’lláh vary between traditions — ranging from say, 10% of your gross income, to 19% of your net wealth after your needs have been addressed — this law was obligatory and distinct from voluntary charitable donations.
Today, the practice can play a significant role in the life of the community, in the way it redistributes wealth in a prescribed manner, ensuring it goes to the general welfare. For the person who pays, it strengthens their sense of duty and commitment to a cause higher than themselves. Some of our emotional hangups are a result of focusing excessively on the self, and thus it serves as an antidote to the navel gazing, causing the individual to shift perspective, refocus and realign priorities, getting out of their own head. For those inclined to undertake giving back as a spiritual practice, it serves as a way of purifying their wealth, fosters a connection between the material and spiritual realms, and imparts blessings and protections.
While obviously we strive to do good in the world, there are plenty of times we slip up and need forgiveness and this is one way to lift the burden of guilt, or help atone for wealth ill-gotten in past generations, from which one now benefits. If nothing else, to determine if a payment should be made and to calculate how much is to be rendered requires a clear understanding of one’s financial standing, needs, debts, etc. The knowledge, skill, and awareness that comes from carrying out this practice, getting to the starting line, if you will, alone is such a huge blessing. Actually making the payment is then the next step for which one eagerly anticipates, doing so out of love and joy. If done begrudgingly, it defeats the purpose of embracing connection with the larger social and spiritual world around us. Who wants a hug or gift from a curmudgeon? Yuck. So we also have to get our attitude right as well. And when we focus on the positive, have gratitude for having our needs met, for having excess to share, we engage in a kind of positive psychology and our emotional issues dissipate as we strengthen and mature in the process. Giving back helps to cultivate our sense of obligation and commitment. For some, a healthy dose of obedience may not be a bad thing, as it can, when trust is placed in a sound authority, help take the exhausting waffling of decision-making out of the process. It requires humility, to acknowledge that we may not fully know what is best for us, but to trust the process, and continually seek to learn through the experience. And as we learn, we uncover wisdom and understanding, confirmations and hindsight, that can inform our deepening commitment to the greater good and our daily actions and mindfulness toward that end.
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