Giving and Living

Diwali is almost upon us. Just as the days are becoming noticeably shorter, Diwali is a festival of light. Flames and fireworks light up the night with a message of welcome and hope. And just when it turns cold and we find ourselves more often confined in our own homes , Diwali invites us a time to visit friends and relatives and to give them sweets or small gifts to strengthen the connections between us. 

The western season of gift-giving is coming. It’s just around the corner. Think about the popular symbols that represent Christmas. The sparkling, decorated tree may be foremost, but right after that comes the image of brightly wrapped gifts scattered beneath. In an ordered list, any symbol that stands for the hope of the season probably comes in no higher than number 9.

Christmas is very much about giving presents. Hannukah doesn’t do a whole lot better.

The sufi mystic Hafiz wrote these words:

Even after all this time, 
The sun never says to the earth, 
"You owe me." 
Look what happens with
A love like that. 
It lights the whole sky.

Our giving, I find, is not much like the selfless relationship that Hafiz models on the sun and the earth. More often, we give either out of a sense of obligation or because we expect something in return. Christmas and birthdays and mothers’ day and fathers’ day and anniversaries... These so often become occasions when we know we’re supposed to give. The pressure is on as we scour the shops looking for something right for the recipient. 

The wonderful poet Maya Angelou claimed that “giving liberates the soul of the giver.” She must have meant some other kind of giving, because obligatory giving doesn’t feel very soul-freeing to me at all.

The other reason we often give is that we expect something in return. How long do you keep giving birthday gifts to someone who never reciprocates? Not long, right?

The notion of commerce and trade is built into most gift giving: I give to you and then you give to me. We call it exchanging gifts for a reason.

Maybe it’s not a gift we expect in return - it might be forgiveness, or hospitality, or - as the apple has been said to be used - for a better grade.

Speaking of reciprocal gift giving, how do you feel when you don’t want to or simply can’t give a gift in return? What if you receive an extravagant gift and know you can not reciprocate in kind?

Something happens that feels very negative. What is going on? 

In part, it’s the embarrassment and the obligation of failing to reciprocate in the gift giving game. But there is more.

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke about gifts, saying “We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.”

Receiving a gift like this can undermine that sense of rugged independence we’ve talked about recently. It is a feeling we have taken in from our culture that says we should rely on no one but ourselves and that anyone who needs to rely on others is weak and of lesser value.

A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveller who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveller saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.

The traveller left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. 'I've been thinking,' he said. 'I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Will you give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone?'

What would it take to give freely? Not just of our possessions but of ourselves - of our time, our care, our concern, our compassion, our talents...

If we are to have any hope at all of breaking free of the materialistic values governing our culture, we must somehow find the strength and courage to go against the flow of our societal norms - to do what our culture tells us not to. We must often do what often seems uncomfortable and counter-intuitive.

One way to do that is to give without expectation. 

A few weeks ago, as an experiment, I walked down Upper Street with a handful of one pound coins and gave them away, one by one. 

I am fortunate that I can afford to do this. Doing it felt wonderful. In many cases, I made connections with people that would have been otherwise impossible. For once, money felt like a way of connecting to others rather than a resource to be stockpiled for a rainy day.

Maybe harder than giving without expectation is receiving without expectation.

Many of the people I approached would not take the coin I offered. Maybe it was too small - maybe they assumed there were strings attached - and maybe there was an element of what Emerson described as the desire to be ‘self-sustained’. I suspect this desire is even stronger now in London than it was in a small Massachusetts town in the middle of the 19th Century.

Over the past month, we have talked about our materialistic culture. We’ve talked about the way it pushes us to see human value in terms of what we have, rather than the sacred selves that we are - we’ve talked about the way our culture urges us to value rugged individualism and neglect our inter-connections and our true inter-dependence - and we’ve talked about the way it distorts and undermines the power of giving and receiving.

It is up to each of us whether we will choose to be carried by the materialistic flow of our culture or to challenge it. May ours be the harder and truer way. May we see the true worth in one another. May we know the reality of our interconnectedness.

May this be a community of the new way.