The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Hardened cynics don’t believe in altruism any more than they believe in Father Christmas. They dismiss acts of giving as simply strategies to get ahead, or ‘to make you feel better about yourself’. Even if they were completely right, there’s a distinct difference between the two intentions.

Getting ahead inevitably means that others get left behind, and naturally many find that reprehensible: humanitarians who find such a concept repellent and unnecessary, and of course those who get left behind.

Cynics often speak of ‘feeling better about yourself’ in scornful tones, as if that’s a bad thing. If an anonymous act of altruism makes you feel good, or less guilty, why would that of itself not be a good thing? And what could be more delightful than the excitement and pleasure of planning, choosing, harvesting or making a gift? Except perhaps the barely contained glee of seeing and hearing the pleasure of the recipient as they receive their gift… and the memory of that pleasure. The gift that keeps on giving.

The pleasure of giving can arise simply from the pure joy of giving. It can be enriched by the feeling of being appreciated, and also from anticipating or experiencing the pleasure of the receiver. These pleasures are not distinguishable, aren’t easily separated out.

When we receive a gift we’re not mad about, we often create a response of delight. This may arise from an investment in the relationship for pragmatic reasons, but more often it arises from an instinctive desire to protect the joy of the giver – and to derive our own pleasure from doing so. Our response of delight to the less desired gift may also arise simply from the joy of having been given to.  If, as giver, we detect disappointment or indifference about the gift, any small deflation we might feel may be tempered by the receiver’s generously created response of joy.

Another charge cynics often make about giving is that of weakness: people give because of a desire to be liked, wanted, or included. This may sometimes be true, but why speak of it with scorn? Are these bad things to want? The answer is that cynics are often disappointed idealists. Cynics sometimes project fear of exclusion, a sense of unloveability, onto others, where it’s easier to despise as a weakness. This isn’t always deliberate, or even conscious. Habits of perception are deeply embedded. Perhaps cynics would secretly love to believe in altruism, if only they could dare to.

Giving can arise from simple spontaneous expression of love, affection, appreciation, response to need or compassion. Cynics often mistake such acts for attempts to manipulate, robbing both themselves and the giver of the joy. And giving can indeed take place as a purely cynical transaction, and idealists can mistake such gifts for love, affection, appreciation or compassion – particularly if they are presented as such. Idealists’ habits of perception are deeply embedded too.

Complex motives and emotions wind their way through giving and receiving, some more conscious that others. Cynicism about such acts can potentially lead to depression, and idealism to disappointment.

As with so many things, it all comes down to what and how we choose to perceive. Our habits may be deeply embedded, but that doesn’t mean we can’t relearn them. It just takes a bit of work.There is potentially some risk in both giving and receiving. But for my money, it’s far outweighed by the joy.


More on this in my book Hearing our Calling:

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