David Bowie wrote and recorded this song while he was busy dying of cancer. When I first heard it, I couldn’t figure it out. You’re dying, man. You’re giving everything away whether you want to or not. Even you, with your Grammys and your personal museum and your own ISP, cannot take it with you.
I myself keep giving away umbrellas. Three times in the past month I’ve chatted with street folks who remarked, in the course of conversation, that it was a bummer to have to sit out in the rain. I agree with this to such an extent that I maintain at least two umbrellas. Well, that, and I’m always buying cheap ones and losing them. So I lost a few on purpose, in the hope that they might make someone’s daily life a little more comfortable. Maybe they didn’t, but I’d’ve just left them all in Penn Station sometime anyway.
Jesus (that guy again) spoke in many metaphors, but some of his instructions deserve to be taken literally. My favorite: “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matthew 5:42). Some days I don’t live up to much in the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s usually not hard to slip a dollar to a panhandler. Yes, it’s giving a man a fish, and yes, it may go to support their addiction or dysfunction, but guess what: Jesus said to. The rest is his problem.
See here for some nifty data on why direct cash payments are actually the best option for the needy and why they’re mostly constructively used. Glad to have my opinion backed by a competent authority: Pope Francis says it’s fine to hand out cash and, furthermore, if your buck goes for booze, maybe that’s the only joy in that person’s day, so who are you to judge?
I feel self-conscious talking about this, like I’m offering myself as some sort of saintly exemplar. Believe me, chucking change at the occasional underserved population does not claim me any moral high ground. In fact, it feels pitifully inadequate—due not so much to the breadth of poverty as to the narrowness of my mind.
Remember Bastian in that 80s classic The Neverending Story? The bullied book-loving kid has the chance to step right into his greatest fantasy. A magical princess is begging him to do it. And at the last instant, he hangs back in superegotistical knots: “No! I have to keep my feet on the ground!”
Somewhere along the line our society started conflating adulthood with self-centeredness. Every kindergartener learns to share their toys, but we all understand that you can’t be that sweet and huggable once you’re earning your own income. Real adults give cautiously or grudgingly or ironically, and they only smile guardedly. You have to keep your feet on the ground. You can’t give everything away.
But that cynical, responsible adulthood is a conspiracy to hide a deep truth. David Bowie wrote “I can’t give everything away” when he was dying. Guess what: I’m dying too. So are you. We hope we won’t do it anytime soon. But it’s been the eleventh hour ever since we were born, no matter how much we aged and buried our soft toy-sharing hearts.
Deep down, don’t we all know that giving away is actually giving in? That it’s easier, in fact, to fork over that dollar than to turn your head and convince yourself once again that you don’t fall for any sob stories? It’s easier to shrug and take that princess’ hand than to keep your feet on the ground. It’s so much easier that it feels positively indecent. It can’t possibly be dignified or appropriate.
Thomas Merton puts this in more formal terms:
This is one of the chief contradictions that sin has brought into our souls: we have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy, and we have to compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship and sometimes for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world.
To give everything away is also to shout out all the secrets.
Psst: Give away because there but for the grace of God go you—but even more, give away because it’s the sweetest way to experience the grace of God. When he says “Give to anyone who begs from you,” Jesus isn’t ordering up hardship. He’s telling Bastian that he’s permitted to step into heaven. We’re permitted to give in to irresponsible openheartedness. We’re permitted to know and talk about and live upon that revelation: we’re all giving everything away in the end.