Something’s Got to Give
Although it has now become a somewhat ritualized procedure, particularly associated with Christmas and birthdays, the practice of gift-giving has a long and colorful history in our culture.
According to a leading authority (St. Paul, quoting Jesus), “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Far be it from me to question anybody’s holy writ – but I say unto you that these words have been, and still are, the basis of much moralistic claptrap.
First, let us note that it is also blessed to receive. After all, givers do need receivers. Also, the amount of blessedness depends largely on who’s giving to whom, and what is being given. Giving someone a piece of your mind is not likely to come under the sanctified category, nor is giving ‘em Hell, nor giving the lie to some claim they’ve made.
And, quite apart from recipients, “giving,” in itself, can often be taken as an indication of weakness, collapse, or surrender, as in giving in, giving out, or giving up. No such yielding, not even “giving up the Ghost,” can be taken as morally commendable.
In times past, the most praiseworthy kind of giving was a gift to God, or to the Gods, in the form of what we call a sacrifice. This usually consisted of the deliberate destruction of something precious, often the life of a domestic animal. Children today are not usually told that, in the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, as soon as the Great Flood was over, and Noah was able leave the Ark and step out on dry land, his first action was to build an altar, and sacrifice on it some of the very same animals he had just saved.
Elements of such rites remain with us even today – for example, in the form of bullfighting, which of course I had to see when visiting Spain. And some years later, when visiting Nepal, I had the dubious privilege of witnessing a hilltop religious ceremony, involving the slaughter and sacrificial “offering” of young goats.
With the rise of human communities, which tragically seem always to be in need of defense against each other, there has been the enduring concept of “giving one’s life” for the group, whether a tribe, state, or nation. This can, of course, only be done by dying (presumably voluntarily). But, except for its inspirational value, the gift would possibly have been of more benefit to those left behind if the life-giver had remained alive and healthy.
In the “modern” world, gift-giving has become a highly organized social phenomenon, involving professional fund-raisers and huge world-wide programs, to benefit such causes as medical aid and research, educational improvements, and poverty relief. This all started some two centuries ago, with the founding of the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1863. (Their symbol is a reversal of the Swiss flag, which has a white cross on a red background.) Since then, the accumulation of vast industrial fortunes has made possible gift-giving on a hitherto unheard-of scale.
To me, the most impressive example of such massive, privately-funded efforts to benefit humanity has been that of Andrew Carnegie, through whose “philanthropy,” incredible as it may seem, between 1883 and 1929, a total of more than 2,500 “Carnegie Libraries” were established all over the world, many of which are still functioning.
First, let us note that it is
also blessed to receive.
But giving can also backfire, or prove pointless, if anything is expected in return. The Israelis – the very “People of the Book” – learned this lesson in a bitter way, when they gave up land they had bought with many of their own lives to the Palestinians, in exchange for a peace – which has still not arrived.
How can I have come this far in an article devoted to Giving, without yet mentioning Charity and Love? According to many translations, those words mean the same thing. “Charity,” however, since the time of King James, has acquired rather negative implications, suggesting that the gift is unearned, or even undeserved. The victims of a natural disaster may be embarrassed to feel that they are the recipients of charity, whether or not it comes from the government.
But receiving LOVE, no matter what the circumstances, is an entirely different matter. Hardly anybody doesn’t want to be loved, in some way, by some person or creature. Too bad that, like so many of our deepest feelings, Love has been corrupted into a commodity, and become (together with various other products) a “Gift that Keeps on Giving.”