Spirit of Giving
The Spirit of Giving – A Platform by Hugh Taft-Morales, December 2010
Although I grew up in a pretty secular environment, Christmas was still a big deal to my brothers and me. Like most of our friends, we looked forward to December 25th mainly for one reason: the loot. Primed by television, lusting after the coolest plastic toys, I was pretty effective at letting Santa know what would look best wrapped up under our tree. Like Ralphie in the wonderful film, The Christmas Story, who wanted nothing but an official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range model air rifle, I dropped hints in every way imaginable. And one time, like Ralphie, I really wanted a toy gun. In my case a Johnny 7, with seven ways to kill: rifle, machine gun, pistol insert, grenade launcher, anti-tank rocket, anti-bunker missile, and bayonet. I was not, as you might guess, raised in Ethical Culture!
On Christmas morning, my brothers and I had a somewhat grotesque ritual. Each of us would find our gifts under the tree and pile them onto an easy chair or one end of the couch. Then we would compare and contrast piles, noting the size and number of gifts, registering our semi-mock indignation if the inequality was too obvious. Then we would lustfully unwrap each, but not too fast, so as to savor the nectar of consumerism. So sweet, so sweet.
It was when I became a teenager, however, that I began to pay the price for my materialistic holiday conditioning. Maybe it was “Christmas karma.” An uneasy anxiety grew stronger inside me each year as I shopped for gifts to give to my parents and brothers. Somewhat predictably, it seemed to me that the very success of the holidays depended on my finding acceptable – no make that outstanding – presents for all. I remember combing the stores of New Haven, frustrated over the inadequate market offerings. Unlike when I was a young child, when a ten-cent trinket handed in a bundle of tissue paper to my mother resulted in “oohs” and “ahs” and “this is so pretty,” as a teen I was acutely aware that my gifts were less than perfect.
I didn’t have unlimited funds, and often waited too late to start shopping. I recall feeling helpless and hopeless as I doubled and tripled back over my path: “There’s got to be something here that my mom would like!” Cheerful Christmas muzak mocked my growing gloom. “It’s nearly Christmas Eve – its dark outside – and I am not done.” I anticipate the disappointment I will cause with my feeble attempts to demonstrate sufficient consumerist familial appreciation and love. I felt the rising guilt, heading towards a crescendo on Christmas morning.
I have not fully outgrown this perverse conditioning. My wife reminds me of this as I run out to get that one last little extra gift for the child of mine whose pile might be too small. My children, thank goodness, do not separate and compare piles of loot – I only do that in my head. “But what if they did? What if they did contrast and compare the materialist representation of our love?,” the twisted child of consumerist America inside me asks.
Obviously each of us here today is unique, with different ways of navigating the holidays. And not all children confuse consumerism and love. But I bet many people, many of you, may have felt – or still feel – some of this. We are bombarded with messages about giving just the right gift to demonstrate our love, and earn being loved back.
This year, for example, I’ve been reminded how important diamonds are to maintaining strong romantic relationships. In commercials, children help clueless fathers go to Jared for that perfect bracelet, a soldier talking with his wife on Skype has his “wingman” son deliver the diamond encrusted pendent to a beaming mom, and every groom has to buy from DeBeer’s because “diamonds are forever.” And to make sure that after the wedding the diamonds keep coming, long ago the advertising agency for DeBeer’s sold America on the belief that, "Candies come, flowers come, furs come," but such ephemeral gifts fail to satisfy a woman's psychological craving for "a renewal of the romance."
And this holiday season is no different, whether we are talking diamonds or DVD’s. Last week we witnessed the American equivalent of Spain’s running of the bulls: Black Friday. What an ominous event - hordes of holiday shoppers camping out to be the first to sprint from mall entrance to register, arms full of booty. Not only do these intrepid consumers love their families, but they love America too! Despite terror, despite recession, we’ll show the rest of the world that we aren’t going to compromise our lifestyle! Buy, and buy some more!
As I careen toward my cynical side in this talk, I am reminded of a kind of consumerist conspiracy theory I have read about. A number of social critics explain that our modern form of capitalism survives greatly on our sense of inadequacy. If we can be made to feel insufficient, unloved, and lonely, then we can be sold the one sure-fire way to overcome our crisis: buy lots of junk that makes us feel important or that we can give to those we hope to impress and yearn to love. Is this the best world that capitalism can bring us?
Over a hundred years ago, Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, was well aware of the shallowness of materialism in the United States. As we mastered the art of conspicuous consumption, we found our selves not happier, but more hectic and more melancholy. Adler writes,
It has been said that the modern world is divided between the hot and hasty pursuit of affairs in the hours of labor, and the no less eager chase of pleasure in the hours of leisure. But even our pleasures are calculated and business like. We measure our enjoyments by the sum expended. Our salons are often little better than bazaars of fashion. We wander about festive halls, chewing artificial phrases which we neither believe nor desire to be believed. We breathe a stale and insipid perfume from which the spirit of joy has fled. The brief exhilaration of the dance, the physical stimulus of wine and of food, the nervous excitement of a game of hazard, perhaps these make up the sum total of enjoyment in by far the majority of our so-called parties of pleasure. Surely, of all things melancholy in American life, American mirth is the most melancholy!
Of course, some Americans, without the privilege of spending their time at festival halls, dances, and “parties of pleasure, ” have a far different experience with materialism, especially around holiday time. Even in the optimistic dawn of twentieth century America, some, like Della and Jim, did not have the option of a dizzying drunken materialism. In a more uplifting take on consumerism, O. Henry penned The Gift of the Magi in 1906. It is part of a little holiday tradition that my wife and I began years ago that sheds light on the spirit of giving and the trap of consumerism. Late at night, when the kids are in bed, we take turns reading out loud this story. I will not read it to you in its entirety – I reserve that for my more personal ritual. But I will share some of it with you.
Perhaps I love this story because I so identify with the anxiety felt by young Della, who, despite a year of scrimping and saving, is left on Christmas Eve with only one dollar and eighty-seven cents - less than two dollars with which to buy a gift for Mr. James Dillingham Young, the husband she loves. This young couple, of modest means at best, boasts only two possessions: James’ silver watch and Della’s long beautiful hair. And now, she has little to offer Jim on the holiday. O. Henry writes, “Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.”
Confronted so starkly with a choice, in order to get money for a present, Della heads out to sell her hair to a wig maker. Perhaps she had to pass the Broadway store window displaying a beautiful set of tortoise shell jewel-rimmed combs she had imagined might one day adorn her long lush hair. No matter. With a trembling breath and teary eye, she sells her hair and eagerly returns home with the silver fob chain that would soon make Jim proud to take out his watch. O. Henry shares that, “With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.”
As Jim enters their flat, and stares at Della, she fears he no longer thinks her pretty with the hairstyle of a truant schoolboy. I will let O. Henry conclude the story. Della responds to Jim’s gaze as follows:
"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?" Jim looked about the room curiously. "You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it." Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
I love this story.
But wait. Are Della and Jim victims of the holiday giving trap? After all, they had little money to spare, and few possessions to squander. Were they fools for selling hair and watch as they did? Should they have saved their money and put it toward more “practical” use?
Well, before I transform myself into a supercilious Scrooge or an ungrateful Grinch, I’ll remind myself that this is a love story. It’s a love story in which the irony radiates not greed, but gratitude, not materialism, but relationship. Della and Jim are giving each other a watch fob and comb set, but that is only on the surface. What is really going on is that they are giving up for each other their most prized possessions of watch and hair. Their love for each other is expressed not in what they acquire, but in what they give away. This is a familiar truth. This is, in the end, why I love this story.
Perhaps it would have been different for me as a child had my gift gathering been more of a sacrifice. But it was not the lack of cash that made me anxious. What dominated my thoughts was the aching need of some artificial material shoring up of what seemed to me tenuous and tentative family relationships. Isn’t it odd then, that so many of us, so in need of stronger relationships and better community, spend so much time shopping alone for others? How about if we instead spent time together NOT shopping?
This is what in part motivates Ethical Culture Leader Susan Rose when she promotes Buy Nothing Day, which occurs on the same day as “black Friday.” As Susan wrote on her Ethical Culture Without Walls blog of November 21, 2010, Buy Nothing Day, the nonprofit Adbusters started the day about 20 years ago. It consists of simply its name: buying nothing. The day reminds us of how conditioned we are to buying things – it is amazing how hard it can be to go through a day without making a single purchase. But Buy Nothing Day also is a chance to reflect on the majority of people who have little pocket cash to purchase luxuries we take for granted.
As a part of Buy Nothing Day, individuals have organized more communal and comedic elements. There is the Credit Card Cut Up, where participants stand in shopping malls with a pair of scissors and a poster that advertises help for people who want to put an end to mounting debt and extortionate interest rates with one simple cut. There are Zombie Walks where people join together to wander around shopping malls or other consumer havens with a blank stare, a humorous lampoon of mindless consumerism and a way to spread the word about buying nothing. One website advocates a “Whirl-mart,” at which protesters silently steer their shopping carts around a shopping mall or store in a long, baffling conga line without putting anything in the carts or actually making any purchases.
While these activities sound fun, I have not fully escaped the sense of imperative around gift giving. If, like me, you are still entranced by a gift-giving tradition – whether it is secular or involves Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanza – there is middle ground between buying nothing and buying everything. Instead of driving to a chain mall, consider some local alternatives. In the Washington area – and other cities I am sure – there are “alternative gift fairs” where you can buy for your friends and family “a month's supply of formula for an orphaned infant in Africa, an acupuncture session for a wounded soldier,” or “a day of meals for a homebound senior.” In past years my nephews and nieces have received a card indicating a donation in their name to the Heifer Project that helps create sustainable food solutions for hungry people around the world. Many others donate to micro-lending programs such as Kiva.
Winter Festivals at Ethical Societies in Washington, Brooklyn and elsewhere offer gift making tables where children create candle centerpieces or ornaments while talking about ways to reinforce humanist values during the holiday madness. Some Ethical Societies have had local crafts fairs with goods donated from local artists - all or part of the proceeds go to a good cause.
At the Ethical Society of Saint Louis, as well as at the Washington Society, there is a “giving tree” tradition where individual families buy presents for local families in need. While it does involve buying, most of the gifts are basic necessities, like winter hats and gloves. This allows us to at least bend our spirit of giving in a more altruistic and sensible direction.
Anne Klaeysen, Leader at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, points out an Ethical Culture home tradition that we have done at my house. It involves making and giving “coupons for doing tasks, like cooking, the dishes or laundry, and time spent together, like taking a walk or seeing a movie.” I recently found one coupon from my son for making me a blueberry pie. I need to cash in on that one, and, in the spirit of giving, I should help him make it and eat it!
The idea of coupons for doing things together brings me to a final theme in this talk. What if, instead of shopping alone for others so much, we found a way to give others what is really rare these days – our time and our attention? While I doubt that I will fully escape consumerism, I can work at making my giving a deeper and more meaningful kind not just in December, but all year long.
Being present for other people is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Hanh knows full well that being present for others is not so easy to do. Even for him, it takes practice.
He suggests that at first we practice being present in the moment. Before we can be present with other people, we have to calm ourselves and really be here, now. Can we do that today, tomorrow, everyday?
So often we run off into the future – what holiday task will I cross off my list? What holiday feast will I prepare this year? Other times we run off into the past with negative thoughts – why did my boss treat me badly yesterday? What should I have done differently last week? Americans are particularly poor at not fixating on the past or future, often only able to do so when drugged or distracted by TV. And often in those self-centered or numbing cases they are not really present to others.
My mother struggled much of her life to be in the present. It was only later in her life when she found some peace through Alcoholics Anonymous that she was able to escape the push and pull of reliving painful memories or worrying about tomorrow. She never really gave up consumerism, but she did become more able to be present for her grandchildren. She shared her time and colorful personality with them. I remember she said with a sense of renewed liberation that the moment right now was a gift. That’s why, she would say, they call it the “present.” The moment, right now, is a nice present to receive!
Like my mother, I am more materialist than Buddhist, but I am trying to do better at focusing on being present for others. Perhaps it is good timing that many Buddhists celebrate the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment just as holiday consumer fever becomes ever more intense. Bodhi Day falls on December 8. So this coming Wednesday, I am going to take a moment or two to remember an important part of Buddhist advice. Buddhism counsels that we choose to follow “ a middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism).” Similarly, I will choose a middle way in my giving of gifts. In the spirit of giving I will still do some holiday shopping, but I will do it more moderately and mindfully.
Of course Buddhists don’t have exclusive monopoly on this approach. And they don’t always escape materialist trappings - just visit the hundreds of Buddhist websites offering personalized prayer wheels or meditation cushion, and free shipping if you order now! Most humans struggle to understand the real spirit of giving, whether they live in a monastery or on Madison Avenue. May we all remember some of the simpler things about the spirit of giving this holiday season. Most of all I hope to remember to be like Della and Jim - I hope I can be foolish enough to care more about the giving than the receiving. I will strive not to just wrap my presents, but - mindfully and compassionately – to be present.