Today our beautiful and beloved country and its citizens face some of the most severe challenges in our 244 year history. In addition to the social and health complexities, we are experiencing an increase in both depression and suicide. Threats to our democracy, the environment, and our personal well-being have thrust us into a time of re-examining how we protect our earth, live in community, and express our freedom and individuality.
Regardless of what bumper stickers may imply, age and life teach us there is no silver bullet, no genie to grant wishes, no magical simplistic formula to heal personal brokenness or form a more perfect union. No hero will ride in, save the day, and ride out of town shouting “Hi Ho Silver.” It takes courage and commitment to face our personal issues and the issues we face as a country.
“So where do we go from here?” I ask myself while pouring another coffee into the terra cotta mug I was gifted by a close friend some forty years ago. I look at my irreplaceable mug from my now gone friend and it brings forth memories and stirs my imagination in ways it would not if I had purchased the mug.
“Perhaps,” I say out loud, “gifts may provide a hint as to how we move forward and heal the divisions that plague us all.”
To begin with, a gift is more than a commodity. A commodity is stagnant after it is obtained. There may be a thrill of purchase but more often than not the excitement is short-lived even when the purchase is a big one. This is illustrated by the comedian who looks at his stopwatch and says, “My father sold me this on his death bed.” The watch meant little as a commodity while it would have been priceless as a gift.
A gift is dynamic, engendering new life in both the giver and the receiver. For example, if we understand our earth as a gift to be taken care of and given to the next generation rather than a static commodity to be used and abused, our attitude towards the earth is different. If the gift of a coffee mug conveys love, it is dynamic, affects the relationship between the giver and receiver, and causes the receiver to pass on the gift through attitude and action towards others and one’s self.
A gift establishes a bond between people, while a commodity does not. A gift makes a connection. It helps us recognize what is important.
The Statue of Liberty, gifted by the French people to the United States in 1886 to celebrate friendship, strengthened our relationship with France and enforced our self-understanding of providing “liberty and justice for all.” The statue would not be the same if it had been purchased.
In these days of isolation, I miss the gifts life brings—hugging a friend or loved one, sharing sideline shouts at a grandkid’s soccer game, and the simple intimacy of shared time at a favorite restaurant. However, such loss can remind us of the importance of giving and receiving, remind us that gifts can sooth our souls, and challenge us to find new ways to gift.
The French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), tells of a ceremony that takes place in modest restaurants in the South of France. The patrons sit at a long communal table. A modest flask of wine is placed in front of each plate as a patron is seated. Before the meal begins a patron pours wine, not into his own glass but into the stranger’s across the table. The stranger returns the favor, pouring wine into the first person’s glass. In an economic sense nothing has happened, both have the same wine as though they had poured their own. But a commodity has metamorphosed into gift. The pouring of wine opens conversation, and trivial social ties unfold. The small but real tension among strangers is resolved and the unspoken isolation between them is dissolved as a sense of community is established.
The bonds of gifting are more than social, they are psychological and spiritual as well.
All around us are examples of people who have gifted their lives for the common good. As I write this, the funeral for Congressman John Lewis has just concluded. His truth was not based in selfish pursuits but in giving himself for others. He taught that the gift of love can transform our own lives and our community life together. We give and receive the gifts life offers when we turn towards each other not against each other. Gifting is inherent in nonviolence. Gifts, both large and small, touch the souls of both the giver and the receiver in ways commodities cannot.
As we experience old age, the importance of giving often grows. The older I get the less important things seem to be. New purchases do not sustain me. The gifts of family, friendship, social justice, and love, bring meaning into my life. Both heartfelt giving and receiving bring dynamics into my aging self. In gifting our money, time, and care there is hope and fulfillment.
In our troubled world may we sit together soon, pour each other wine from a flask, share and learn from our different perspectives, and celebrate our common humanity.
(Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, explores the topic of gift in detail. His work is foundational for this article.)
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.