Friday, August 21, 2009

Speeding and Shape-Shifting

Rethinking the Idea of the Gift

The gift... a concept I have been moved by, an idea which has been important to me in my work and life.

I wish to explore this concept a bit more in this posting. I wish to make a simple distinction, but a distinction that, as Gregory Bateson would say, makes a difference.

Two ways to talk about the gift.

Gift – as Possession

In this manner of thinking the gift is understood as:

  1. An item of value which is provided to an individual or other entity without expectation of an equitable exchange of monies or other goods.
  2. The item exchanged, by means of the exchange, and in spite of the inequitable exchange of monies or goods, becomes the property of the one receiving the item.
  3. The emphasis becomes the gift as property/possession.
Such a conception of the gift is wrought with many legal meanings and histories.

With the idea of gift as possession, I give a gift to my friend -- let’s say I give a bottle of wine. After I give the gift, the bottle of wine is then understood to be my friend’s property. A person's relationship with the gift is one of proprietor and property.

In a similar vein, we use this type of language of gifts in connection with people and the unique contributions they bring to the world. We may notice gifts such as intellect, athletic abilities, business acumen, even compassion, but we see these gifts as connected to and owned by a particular individual or group.

  1. She has a gift of intellect.
  2. He has a real gift with his athletic abilities.
  3. Those people seem to have smarts when it comes to doing business.

Such gifts are also distinguished as items which a person is in possession of. The emphasis is not so much on the exchange of gifts but upon the item given and the fact that the item is the property of the individual. Such a conception of the gift tends to isolate a person, it proposes that the person who owns the gift is different from others around him or her precisely because the person is in ownership of the gift. "Giftedness" in education is built upon this idea.

Gift – as Movement

But the gift can also be distinguished by virtue of its movement, its economy -- if I may. The emphasis shifts from ownership to flows and speeds of movement. In cultures where gift economies are emphasized, the focus is typically upon the gift-in-movement, not upon the perceived owner of the gift, and not even upon the unique embodiment of the gift in that particular moment.

Gifts are seen as moving within and through communities; gifts transform their embodiment as they change hands; and people (and the land, animals, plants) are conduits, carriers and transformers of these gifts.

Within this way of understanding the gift, the emphasis is not on the bottle of wine, or on the one who owns it or gives it. Rather, the bottle of wine is given in response to the perception of gifts being given previously (for example, the bottle of wine is given in response to an invitation to dinner); and the reception of the bottle of wine transforms into further gifts of appreciation, hospitality, and on and on. The gift, in a way, moves through the items given and through the people giving and receiving, it keeps circulating and expanding, taking on ever new embodiments. This gift never ceases.

And a gift such as compassion, therefore, becomes so much more than a possession owned by an individual; it becomes a response to previous gifts too innumerable to mention, it becomes part of ongoing flows and exchanges. To tie down solidly a gift, such as compassion, into a body, as a possession, can deny both the complexities of movement that brought that gift into its current form, and the endless possibilities of how that gift can move and transform in the future.

It has been my sense for some time that people tend to feel uncomfortable when the goods they bring to life are seen as possessions which they carry within their bodies. People want to be part of ongoing flows of gifts, they don’t so much want these gifts stopped and settled upon their own bodies – such a weight can feel far too heavy to bear.

It seems to me that we usually want to live in response to others and the gifts they bring; and we wish others to live in response to us and the gifts we bring -- gifts moving through us, changing form in their passing.

Such a sense of gift exchange, I propose, creates its own flows of gifts; for one, it creates an ongoing experience of a good life, of a life well lived.

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