Giving That Does Not Impoverish

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1869

Of all the fallacies accepted by men as truths, there is none more widely prevalent, nor more fatal to happiness, than that which assumes the measure of possessions, to be the measure of enjoyment. All over the world, the strife for accumulation goes on; everyone seeking to increase his flocks and herds his lands and houses or his gold and merchandise and ever in the weary, restless, unsatisfied present, tightening with one hand the grasp on worldly goods, and reaching out for new accessions with the other.

In dispensing, not in possession lies the secret of enjoyment; a fact which nature illustrates in a thousand ways, and to which every man's experience gives affirmation.

"Very good doctrine for the idle and wasteful," said Mr. Henry Steel, a gentleman of large wealth, in answer to a friend, who had advanced the truth we have expressed above.

"As good doctrine for them as for you," was replied. "Possession must come before dispensing. It is not the receiver but the dispenser, who gets the higher blessing."

The rich man shrugged his shoulders, and looked slightly annoyed, as one upon whom a distasteful theme was intruded.

"I hear that kind of talk every Sunday," he said, almost impatiently. "But I know what it is worth. Preaching is as much a business as anything else; and this cant about its being more blessed to give than to receive, is a part of the capital in trade of your men of black coats and white neck-ties. I understand it all, Mr. Erwin."

"You talk lighter than is your custom on so grave a theme," answered the friend. "What you speak of as 'cant,' and the preacher's 'capital in trade' 'it is more blessed to give than to receive, are the recorded words of Him who never spoke as man spoke. If Jesus' words, must they not be true?"

"Perhaps I did speak rashly," was returned. "But indeed, Mr. Erwin, I cannot help feeling that in all these efforts to make rich men believe that their only way to happiness is through a distribution of their estates a large element of covetousness exists."

"That may be. But, today you are worth over a quarter of million of dollars. I remember when fifty thousand, all told, limited the extent of your possessions, and I think you were happier than I find you today. How was it, my friend?"

"As to that," was unhesitatingly replied, "I had more true enjoyment in life when I was simply a clerk with a salary of four hundred dollars a year, than I have known at any time since."

"A remarkable confession," said the friend.

"Yet true, nevertheless."

"In all these years of strife with fortune in all these years of unremitted gain has there been any great and worthy end in your mind? Any purpose beyond the acquirement of wealth?"

Mr. Steel's brows contracted. He looked at his friend for a moment like one half surprised, and then glanced thoughtfully down at the floor.

"Gain, and only gain," said Mr. Erwin. "Not your history alone, nor mine alone. It is the history of millions. Gathering, gathering but never of free choice, dispensing. Still, under Providence, the dispensing goes on; for what we hoard in due time another distributes. Men accumulate gold like water in great reservoirs; accumulate it for themselves, and refuse to lay conduits. Often they pour in their gold until the banks fail under excessive pressure, and the rich treasure escapes to flow back among the people. Often secret conduits are laid, and refreshing and fertilizing currents, unknown to the selfish owner, flow steadily out, while he toils with renewed and anxious labors to keep the repository full. Oftener, the great storehouse of accumulated gold and silver, which he never found time to enjoy, is rifled by others at his death. He was the toiler and the accumulator the slave who only produced. Miners, pearl-divers, gold-washers are we, my friend; but what we gather, we fail to possess in that true sense of possession which involves delight and satisfaction. For us the toil for others the benefit."

"A flattering picture certainly!" was responded by Mr. Steel, with the manner of one on whose mind an unpleasant conviction was forcing itself.

"Is it not true to the life? Death holds out to us his unwelcome hand and we must leave all. The key of our treasure-house is given to another."

"Yet, is he not bound by our will?" said Mr. Steel. "As we have ordered, must not he dispense?"

"Why not dispense with our own hands, and with our own eyes see the fruit thereof? Why not, in some small measure, at least prove if it be indeed, more blessed to give than to receive? Let us talk plainly to each other we are friends. I know that in your will is a bequest of five thousand dollars to a certain charitable institution, that, even in its limited way, is doing much good. I speak now of only this single item. In my will, following your example and suggestion, is a similar bequest of one thousand dollars. You are forty-five and I am forty-seven. How long do we expect to live?"

"Life is uncertain."

"Yet often prolonged to sixty, seventy, or even eighty years. Take sixty-five as the mean. Not for twenty years, then, will this institution receive the benefit of your good intention. It costs, I think, about fifty dollars a year to support each orphan child. Only a small number can be taken, for lack of liberal means. Applicants are refused admission almost every day. Three hundred dollars, the interest on five thousand, at six percent., would pay for six children. Take five years as the average time each would remain in the institution, and we have thirty poor, neglected little ones, taken from the street, and educated for usefulness. Thirty human souls rescued, it may be, from Hell, and saved, finally, in Heaven. And all this good might be accomplished before your eyes. You might, if you chose, see it in progress, and comprehending its great significance, experience a degree of pleasure, such as fills the hearts of God. I have made up my mind what to do."


"Erase the item of one thousand dollars from my will."

"What then?"

"Call it two thousand, and invest it at once for the use of this charity. No, twenty years shall stand between my purpose and its execution. I will have the satisfaction of knowing that good is done in my lifetime. In this case, at least, I will be my own dispenser."

Love of money was a strong element in the heart of Mr. Steel. The richer he grew, the more absorbing became his desire for riches. It was comparatively an easy thing to write out charitable bequests in a will to give money for good uses, when no longer able to hold possession thereof; but to lessen his valued treasure by taking anything therefrom for others in the present time, was a thing the very suggestion of which startled into life a host of opposing reasons. He did not respond immediately, although his heart moved him to utterance. The force of his friend's argument was, however, conclusive. He saw the whole subject in a new light. After a brief but hard struggle with himself, he answered:

"And I shall follow in your footsteps, my friend. I never thought of the lost time you mention, of the thirty children unblessed by the good act I purposed doing. Can I leave them to vice, to suffering, to crime and yet be innocent? Will not their souls be required at my hands, now that God shows me their condition? I feel the pressure of a responsibility scarcely thought of an hour ago. You have turned the current of my thoughts in a new direction."

"And what is better still," answered Mr. Erwin, "your purposes also."

"My purposes also," was the reply.

A week afterwards the friends met again.

"Ah," said Mr. Erwin, as he took the hand of Mr. Steel, "I see a new light in your face. Something has taken off from your heart that dead, dull weight of which you complained when I was last here. I don't know when I have seen so cheerful an expression on your countenance."

"Perhaps your eyes were dull before." Mr. Steel's smile was so all-pervading, that it lit up every old wrinkle and care-line in his face.

"I was at the school yesterday," said Mr. Erwin, in a meaning way.

"Were you?" The light lay stronger on the speaker's countenance.

"Yes. A little while after you were there."

Mr. Steel took a deep breath, as if his heart had commenced beating more rapidly.

"I have not seen a happier man than the superintendent for a score of weeks. If you had invested the ten thousand dollars for his individual benefit, he could not have been half so well pleased."

"He seems like an excellent man, and one whose heart is in his work," said Mr. Steel.

"He had, already, taken in ten poor little boys and girls on the strength of your liberal donation. Ten children lifted out of poverty and suffering, and placed under Christian guardianship! Just think of it. My heart gave a leap for joy when he told me. It was well done, my friend well done!"

"And what of your good purpose, Mr. Erwin?" asked the other.

"Two little girls babes almost," replied Mr. Erwin, in a lower voice, that almost trembled with feeling, "were brought to me. As I looked at them, the superintendent said: 'I heard of them two days ago. Their wretched mother had just died, and, in dying, had given them to a wicked companion. Hunger, cold, debasement, suffering, crime, were in the way before them; and but for your timely aid, I would have had no power to intervene. But, you gave the means of rescue, and here they are, innocent as yet, and out of danger from the wolf.' In all my life, my friend, there has not been given a moment of sincerer pleasure."

For some time Mr. Steel sat musing.

"This is a new experience," he said, at length. "Something outside of the common order of things. I have made hundreds of investments in my time, but none that paid me down so large an interest. A poor speculation it seemed. You almost dragged me into it; but, I see that it will yield unfailing dividends of pleasure."

"We have turned a leaf in the book of life," his friend made answer, "and on the new page which now lies before us, we find it written, that in wise dispensing, not in mere getting and hoarding, lies the secret of happiness. The lake must have an outlet, and give forth its crystal waters in full measure, if it would keep them pure and wholesome; or, as the Dead Sea, it will be full of bitterness, and hold no life in its bosom."