For many, the day after Christmas marks the end of a season of giving. For a month, we give to our families, to our friends. Christmas gives way to images of an overflowing pile of presents stacked under a tree. Hindus aren’t much better, the commercialization of Christmas in December replaced by lavish displays of gifting at Diwali in October. We give for the 12 consecutive nights of Hanukkah, at once bemoaning a culture of commercialism and materialism, while ourselves partaking in the chaos of showing people our gratitude for their presence in our lives through physical gifts.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with giving.,American culture may have turned Christmas into a commercialized secular display of wealth, but at the heart of any tradition of giving is something humanizing and holy. The privilege of wealth is not what we do for ourselves, but what it enables us to do in the lives of others.
Puppy suspiciously eyeing her Christmas presents.
A few weeks ago, the amazing Gina Lee coordinated a Christmas party for a womens’ shelter and foster care facility. We “adopted” kids, got their Christmas lists, and were off to the races to give them a memorable Christmas. As we were setting up for a Christmas party last weekend, we went upstairs to attend the Sunday service at River of Life AME Church.
What my brand of Hinduism lacks in structured gatherings at the temple, I’ve learned from the religious leanings of others- I’ve attended service at many a Baptist church, a mosque, a Baha’i temple, and a Jain festival. I’ve attended Catholic mass at the Vatican. Sunday service at a Black church was a welcome window into a world I hadn’t seen.
Afterwards, Brian and I were outside waiting for the kids to come join us in a game of football, and he remarked to me how strange it must be to attend a service so different than what I’m used to, and to still partake in the tradition of Christmas for people who believe something so different.
There is a Christmas gift I got several years ago. A book, one of my favorites, titled To Heal A Fractured World. There’s a passage that came to mind then, from the back of the book, in response to Brian’s point.
Religions reach their highest levels when they stop worrying about the needs of people’s bodies and cater instead to the needs of their souls.
Why do we give? To fulfill our own ideas of what a good and moral life are? To make ourselves feel better about our relative wealth? To achieve moral salvation by telling ourselves that we are helping others do the same?
We are merely human. We cannot be expected to take our emotions out of giving. To give to those who may not believe the same things you do doesn’t diminish the fact that it feels good to give. I’d rather give for the needs of their bodies, than try to change the whisperings of their souls.
Spending time with the children that Sunday morning was an absolute joy – the younger ones were eager to play games, the older ones wanted to talk about their days at school. The idea of receiving from strangers has not yet brought with it the connotations of haves-and-have-nots, has not yet led to feelings of inferiority and shame. For a few, enchanting moments in time, Christmas wasn’t about giving gifts, but giving freedom, giving companionship, giving attention. These are the true gifts of the season.
But as we get older, we understand the ideas of charity and dignity. As the kids went back up to the sanctuary for Christmas carols, the parents came down and made a line to pick up the gifts that we had brought for their children.To see parents lined against the wall, with eyes averted, accepting bags of beautifully wrapped toys and clothes, is at once humbling and heartbreaking.
Rabbi Sacks talks about eight degrees of charity, and how the highest levels of giving center around the dignity of not letting someone know who has given the gift. Poverty is a plague, because it robs people of their dignity.
Here we get into the territory of aid, economic development, and the developing world. I am, as Jaspal Sandhu (who, by the way, is a pioneer of design research in the developing world) described over coffee in Oakland, a bleeding heart. I want to believe that I can save the world, that my purpose in designing for the developing world is to give someone something that they cannot build themselves.
The world doesn’t need saving, and certainly not by me. People don’t need my gifts as much as they need my partnership, my willingness to listen, my compassion in understanding the need for dignity. We design things not because people need them or because it makes us feel better, but because we want to enable a way of life that preserves someone’s dignity. We must care for the needs of the body before we can expect people to understand the needs of their souls.
Freedom is essential to the human condition, and no matter how freely the gift is given, whether or not we have the means to provide it ourselves, we want to be free from obligation to someone else for meeting our needs and desires. No matter the recipient, giving is about dignity, and the best gifts are the ones which preserve and enhance the dignity of the individual.
A beautiful, handmade graduation gift hanging on the tree.
I’ll be the first to confess that I am not good at receiving graciously. Sacks cites an African proverb, “The hand that gives is always upper-most; the hand that receives is always lower.” I’d much rather give than receive, and it’s not because of moral piety, but rather a selfish desire to prevent awkwardness, to keep my power in the subtle dynamics of interpersonal relationships.
I have trouble even accepting money from my parents.They can afford to give to me, and I don’t need their help - it’s vulnerable to receive graciously. I can stand on my own two feet, and a part of me still wants to prove that to the world. I’m still not comfortable with my own wealth. Maybe giving graciously can help me come to terms with it.