“What are we expected to give to others? Is there a limit?”
This question has come up in several recent conversations about the spiritual path, and it betrays a certain uneasiness. The ideals of love, harmony and beauty are deeply appealing – intoxicating even – but when we begin to examine the implications they carry toward our own behaviour, we pause. Oh – am I supposed to love my neighbour? To love this or that other difficult person? That is not so easy. And when we hear that love is not pleasure, as Hazrat Inayat Khan tells us in the Gayan, well, maybe we already suspected that from various bruising life experiences – but if we are told that the essence of love is sacrifice, we begin to have reservations.
This is partly because of our natural reluctance to leave our own comfort zone, of course, for sacrifice means making an offering, or in other words being ready to part with something, perhaps material possessions, or physical effort, or our time, or our attention. But it is also because the idea of sacrifice has been used – and often misused – as a way of demonstrating, and perhaps enforcing, our devotion to an ideal. “If you love your faith, you must sacrifice.”
In such a case, the misuse is simply the inversion of cause and effect. It is not by sacrificing that we will come to love, but when we feel love, we will be willing to sacrifice.
And as to the question of how far to go in the path of sacrifice, that must always depend on a wise understanding of the circumstances. That includes recognising the nature – the purity or lack of it – of our intentions, our capacity to give, and above all, the effect of our giving. As we cherish our own freedom, we must be sure not to limit the freedom of another person by our offering. Perhaps that is the wisdom hidden in this anecdote about Hazrat Inayat Khan. During his last days in India, when he would go out, he was careful to carry with him packets of food to give to the hungry, for of course then, as now, there were always poor and hungry beggars everywhere. What was unusual about his offering, though, was that he would wait until he was approached. “They must ask,” he said.