I have a very ambivalent relationship with the act of giving. On one hand I have been taught relentlessly to politely appreciate any and all gestures and gifts I am offered, regardless of what it is… “it is the thought that counts” after all. And on the other I am all too aware how easily corruptible human nature and intentions are.
Unprompted offerings and spontaneous kindness do not have an easy time in a world this contaminated by ego-centricity. Every day we are confronted with the fact that we must be forever vigilant and alert to the possibility that we may be taken advantage of… that every last little opportunity to defraud is exploited. Anything that isn’t bolted down can be taken from right under our noses. Anything that arrives in our mail and email may be the proverbial Trojan horse re-enacted with the simple purpose of promoting the lifestyles of strangers who deem themselves so important that they feel justified in behaving that way. Is it any wonder people are afraid to stop to help a lady who’s having car trouble at the side of the road? We’ve bred a culture in which kindness is largely a weakness. Something to be exploited…
I look around me and see how gifts and favours changes hands and marvel at the fact that it would be naïve to think no one was keeping score. Even in the most loving and compassionate relationships, someone always knows who’s “ahead on points” – and we all know how to score points, don’t we?
Has selflessly giving to others become as much a tool we use to “work life” into the shape we prefer it as opposed to an actual act of kindness? Has generosity become something we do for ourselves as much as for those we supposedly do it for? Like with the “give a goat for Christmas” concept? For all intents and purposes it is a brilliant idea, offering thousands of people in Africa an improved standard of living. Yet it would be a lie to deny the handy fact that it also helps us disburse with a guilty conscience for whatever we may feel we ought to do better or be more concerned about, like the environment or infant death in third world countries. Besides, it is too good of an image boost not to take advantage of it – and image matters! Still, that’s not the point is it? It wasn’t supposed to be about what one gets out of it…
Beyond all this… beyond the manipulation – conscious or not…. Beyond the needful urge to soothe our own minds, and beyond the expectation of reward or esteem, is there anything left of the original intention to make someone else happy?
I would like to think so. And too I would like to think that once we find people whom we deem worthy to receive that much of and from us that we are willing to sacrifice for them we tend to overcompensate for all the times when we wish we would have given to someone else but didn’t. It can become almost addictive. A stimuli we can seek in line with caffeine or nicotine to soothe or reward ourselves by proxy whenever we feel the need. And one of the hardest things – I’ve realized – then is the lesson of acceptance. With all that pent up eagerness and compassion just aching to be showered upon someone, acceptance of that person’s wishes can be immensely stifling. Often they do not want all that one wants to give and that feels an awful lot like rejection. It isn’t of course, but it can still cause tension and upheaval.
My own childhood teachings of being grateful for everything has brought me boxes and cabinets full of perfectly good things I’ve never used, all graciously accepted in the name of being polite and appreciative of what someone else wishes to do for me. The worst part is that a gift like that can’t be exchanged or given away – even if it would make better use of it. It would seem rude and thoughtless. I do not doubt the intentions were to make me happy… to make me feel special and loved and thought of. And for that reason I guess those things are special to me. But the thing is… I really don’t need them, and I would much rather receive something I can actually make use of – something I can share with them and show I care about and delight in having… than something I feel guilty for hanging in a closet or sticking on a shelf only to forget about it.
I guess with Christmas coming up soon I am reminded of all this. Of the importance of intent. And of how important it is to honour not just the benefactor but also the recipient. A gift is only a real gift if it is respectful of the one who is to receive it. I am reminded of how much courage and insight it takes to really commit to finding the right gesture or present to give someone. And I am reminded how much courage it takes for someone to truly receive with an open honest heart, without fearing the intentions or wondering what the catch is.
And most of all, I am reminded that whatever the world looks like, and whatever culture it breeds… we have chances every single day to be appreciative, respectful and compassionate towards each other. I guess as with all addictions and insecurities it comes down to something very simple… conditioning vs. courage.
Merry Christmas everyone…