The giftedness of humanity: a seasonal reflection

It is as I am sure many of you will know only 29 days till Christmas. The shopping and buying frenzy is well and truly on. Christmas lights are lit up in the city centres and I’m starting to see trees appearing in windows. I’ve even received my first Christmas cards of the year! And yes, it’s not even December!

I have to confess to being an unmitigated lost romantic soul about Christmas – I love it! But there are aspects which I struggle with most years and perhaps this year in particular.

Yesterday was Black Friday and indeed the past week in emails and websites, television and radio I’ve heard nothing other than the bargains that are just waiting to be snatched up in a shopping frenzy. Black Friday is the popular name given to the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s only been around I gather since 2005 but it has now become a dominant retail feature on this side of the Atlantic as much as in the States. It has also spawned off-shoots such as Cyber Monday which in case you hadn’t known is a day to get all those bargains you didn’t know were out there on the technology and digital gadgets you didn’t know you needed.

The older I get the larger the part of me that gets uncomfortable with the sheer commercialism of this time of year and the pressure to buy, buy, buy. Now lest I be called out as a Scrooge I am not for a minute denying the importance of gifting and generosity but especially this year I wonder if we have the balance, right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of giving this week not just because I’ve had a bit of a visceral reaction to Black Friday but because of a conversation I’ve had with a professional home-carer. She works in an area which has immense economic challenges combined with so many of the effects of poverty, homelessness, and addiction. In her own words she’s a ‘tough cookie’ but she told me that’s she has been brought to tears on more than one occasion recently. She told me of someone she provides support for by getting her up out of bed, making sure her personal care needs are attended to and by making her her breakfast before returning later in the day to support her to bed at night. She told me that despite the sharp drop in temperatures this week every day she visited the old lady had refused to put her heating on. As the week went on, she was quite literally getting colder and colder. The worker took appropriate action but what upset her most was that when she asked the lady why she was refusing to put her heating on the response was one of hyper anxiety that she would run out of money. She then went on to say that any extra she could save she’d give to her grandchildren who were doing extra shifts and work just to make ends meet.

I’ve written before about poverty, but it’s cold reality is a stark reminder of the imbalance of our communities. As thousands get a Black Friday bargain there are thousands frightened by the fear as much as by the reality of poverty.

As an antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday on Tuesday coming many will celebrate and recognise Giving Tuesday. It has sometimes been called Charity Tuesday.

It is a day supported by many global and local organisations and philanthropists to encourage everyone everywhere to do something to support the causes that matter to them – and it’s not just about money.

As the organisers state:

‘You can volunteer your time; donate money; share your skills; campaign for something; donate goods, food, or clothes; organise a community event such as a street or park clean-up or a coffee morning. The list really is endless.’

Created just 12 years ago Giving Tuesday is a day that encourages people to do good and it has over the last decade become a global movement to celebrate giving and generosity, collaboration and sharing

In the run up to Christmas my mother often used to paraphrase a biblical verse to say that it was always ‘better to give than to receive.’ And whilst as a child I probably dismissed the sentiment as an excuse for scarcity its truth is becoming more and more inescapable as I get older.

A few years ago, when I worked in a learning disability project I spent a lot of time training other people in the models of person-cratered planning and the tools and techniques which could be used to help people – many of whom were non-verbal or who had spent years in institutions – to achieve a better life in which they were independent and in control. One of the core concepts of many of the models was that of ‘giftedness’. As the product of a traditional Scottish upbringing, I struggled both to understand and to convey an idea which struck me as oh so American. In essence giftedness was not the objects or stuff we give to another but that unique contribution which we brought, and which was ours in any interaction or relationship. In a society that bestows value and prestige often by possession and wealth it was a process that turned the table by elevating individuality, presence and contribution. So, a smile, a positive attitude, the ability to make others feel at ease or to inspire – these were all ‘gifts’ and the task of the group was to help a person not only to discover the gift which was theirs but to free, develop and celebrate that ‘gift.’ You can see how that might have sat awkwardly in a cultural context that so often was about not being too big for your boots!

Giving is something that really can change lives not solely the gifts of time or resource or money but the gifts of attention and our own unique humanity. In the next few weeks when so many are faced with the raw economic challenges of barely having enough money to survive and keep going, I earnestly hope that the spirit of Giving Tuesday can fill the month of December with a focus not on the bargains of the season but the humanity of our giftedness one to the other.

The poet Kahlil Gibran said On Giving

‘Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.

And he answered:

You give but little when you give of your possessions.

It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?

And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?

And what is fear of need by need itself?

Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?

It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;

And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.

And is there aught you would withhold?

All you have shall some day be given;

Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.

From The Prophet (Knopf, 1923). This poem is in the public domain.

Donald Macaskill