Working for Nothing?

Last week I ran a ‘Meaningful Work, Fulfilling Life’ workshop. It was a small group, which was good for strong Introvert Gerda, who felt able to speak of her dreams: her problems turning them into a living, and her uncertainty about what she could offer and to whom.

She spoke of her absolute commitment to the natural world, and her low carbon life. She was planning to walk two miles home through dark lanes in the rain. She was 61, and although robust, didn’t have long striding legs. I was happy to be able to offer her a lift.

On the way, she tentatively asked about coaching, and how much I charge. I detailed my sliding scale depending on people’s income and resources. Her shoulders dropped, resignation crossing her face. I went on to explain that I also work for less sometimes, if someone has little expendable income. ‘I have a very tight budget’, she told me, shaking her head.

‘Whatever budget you’re on,’ I assured her,’ we can work together. You give whatever you feel you can, and whatever you feel coaching is worth compared with other things you spend money on.’

She laughed. I looked at her. ‘I never dreamed coaching would be within my reach’, she said. ‘I’ll email you.’

That exchange has stayed with me, and has actually made me angry. What kind of world is it where someone like Gerda – someone of deep integrity and desire to make a positive difference – can’t get the support she needs to realise her vision, because the extended family community that would once have supported her has now all but broken down in today’s society, and she can’t afford to pay anyone?

‘But she deserves it,’ I have kept thinking, which led me to question: what do I mean by that? Who ‘deserves’ free coaching, counselling, mentoring, therapy or any sort of support that would once have come from within the community? Well, it’s not that Gerda’s ‘earned it’ by contributing so much to the greater good through her lifestyle (though for me, that makes her case all the more poignant and necessary).

Many of the clients who find me are already seeking to make a positive contribution to the world. But anyone who comes earnestly to 1:1 work is at the very least hoping for positive change in their own life, and one thing I’ve learned is that when people do that, it usually ripples out to those around them, and sometimes much further.

I’ve done long-term work with a young person in debt, and in exchange he sometimes offers me the gift of his practical skills. One of his goals for our work is to get out of debt, and various other goals he sets himself will help contribute to this. He’s worked on personal issues in order to develop his professional dreams, and he finds the discipline of someone keeping him on track useful. He now has a long term plan, and once he’s out of debt our work together will probably be finished. And this I am quite happy about. Maybe he would have never developed that plan had it not been for the ability to access regular support. And he will likely ‘pay it forward’ over many years to come.

I’ve switched from paid work into free work temporarily when someone’s circumstances have meant short term hardship – and then back again when her situation improved. It’s a matter of having the conversation; finding out who needs what – and continuing to have it.

Working in this way is has its own rewards. I meet richly various people: with exciting plans, or with no clue but a passionate desire for something. But working  on flexible principles isn’t always straightforward or comfortable. When I had regular income from a large commercial client, I felt well-off enough to offer no-charge work quite freely. And my gosh, I learned some significant things from that experience.

Beautiful gifts included a huge fossil, a handmade wooden box and a jar of honey. But… I found I had a much higher proportion of no-shows, or last minute requests for changes of time or day, with free clients than I had with paying clients. I realise now that a lot of this was about how I set it up initially: interestingly, I felt that I should adopt a less structured approach with unpaying clients, which was a mistake as it didn’t help anyone.

One client told me she wasn’t able to pay, and I accepted that – until she started describing the holiday in the Caribbean she was planning. This led to an uncomfortable and then powerful dialogue about money, value and relationship which was most insightful for my client (and me!) Another unpaying client brought me a lovely goodie box more than a year after we worked together, a beautifully touching reminder that instant appreciation isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how useful or valued 1:1 work has been.

This ongoing experiment has caused me to reflect on how my work is valued, and what that means to me. It’s important for me that the work is approached with some commitment – otherwise there’s no point in doing it. And in our monetised world  it’s important for me to earn an adequate income.

When I tell new clients my sliding scale, I now have a brief conversation with them about their situation, and invite them to pick the figure that feels right for them.  Those who pay more make it possible for me to work at a lower rate with those who have less. And so indirectly and disparately, the community supports itself in making the positive changes it seeks.

Do people ever take advantage? Possibly; occasionally. But my sense is that mostly people are mostly sincere. I’m happy to be part of a new economy based around trust, circumstance and fluidity, working ultimately for the greater good, rather than the old fixed, exclusive, transactional model working primarily for financial gain. I’ve been on the receiving end of others’ free assistance when I needed it, and likely I will be again.

I haven’t had that email from Gerda yet. Maybe she’s decided to carry on ploughing her solitary furrow; maybe she hasn’t yet walked the two miles into town to use the library’s computer. Either way, I’m grateful to her for reminding me of those who think 1:1 work is ‘beyond their reach’, and for prompting me to write this piece.



Good Work!

‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ – Mary Oliver

Hands bleeding, shoulders scraped raw, arms hanging limply by my sides, I slump down on a bench next to my friend Nina’s father and open my packed lunch.

‘Ha ha, cosying up to the boss, love?’ winks the hard-muscled, sun-wrinkled man opposite me. I flush and smile politely as I hungrily gobble my sandwiches. I’m not going to cut it as a steel fixer – that’s already clear from my half day’s work at a new sewage works near Swindon.


I’d left school before I was sixteen, when the owner of a local riding school offered me a job: heaven on a plate, in the shape of horses all day. But eventually I noticed that my friends (the ones I still saw) were buying clothes, going clubbing and meeting boys, while I worked long hours for very little money. It was time to get a ‘proper job’.

Over the next ten years, I went for jobs in the paper or the job centre that I could do without any qualifications, or I followed up leads from friends (such as Nina) in my new world. This approach took me into roles as various as accounts clerk, waitress, van driver, administrator – and steel fixer. I wasn’t very good at most of these jobs – and neither did I like most of them (though I loved the van driving!), which is hardly surprising in hindsight. I physically couldn’t carry around huge bars of steel, and twist wire with my fingers – but equally I couldn’t juggle hotel bookings, car hire, petty cash, stationery supplies and reception duties without forgetting or losing something important occasionally.

If you have ever done a job you’re not very good at, you’ll know how bad it can be for self-esteem. I don’t know which was worse: the mistakes and sense of failure, or the criticism and teasing. I came to dread performance appraisals; the hot-faced embarrassment of taking a call from a manager who’d arrived at his hotel to find he wasn’t booked in; the moral dilemma of whether topping up an inexplicably impoverished cash box from my own pocket would suggest that I had deliberately stolen from it.

And all the time, I had this sense of bewilderment: I’d been quite bright at school; how come I was so awful at everything I tried?

My saviour came in the shape of a breakfast cereal factory manager, who co-opted me  to the Investors in People steering committee. He saw my instant passion for working with people. He funded me to have a whole lot of training in recruitment and psychometric testing, and had me shadow the management development manager. One proud, memorable day I co-ran a leadership workshop, and that was it – I’d found my niche. At last: work I not only loved, but was good at!

I spent the next few years learning avidly. I worked for three years with a mortgage company, adding to my knowledge and practise of communication skills, leadership models, personality types and coaching. Meanwhile, I was delighted to realise I could learn to get better at things I’d never be a natural in – such as developing my planning and organising skills (but not lifting steel bars). It was a time of great personal growth. Performance appraisals were sometimes even enjoyable. But to my surprise, I began to feel unfulfilled again…

I realised that although I loved the work I was doing, I didn’t love what I was doing it for. At team pep talks I found I honestly didn’t care how many new mortgages were in the pipeline, any more than I’d cared whether our breakfast cereal was the best seller. I wanted to do work I loved – but I wanted do it for outcomes I cared about.

I moved to higher education, the charitable sector and then a housing association, gaining valuable experience as I went. But as fast as I moved, a creeping commercialism followed me… Eventually I went self-employed, using the skills I’d learned to benefit truly ethical organisations. As long as I could earn a living, I could take the reduced income.

My career journey taught me how much happier and fulfilled we can all be when we’re doing work that we love, we’re good at and we care about. It makes such a difference: not only to self-esteem, but also to mental health, and therefore relationships with family and friends.

I spent the next few years researching and writing about work (and obsessing, my friends might say!) I discovered that everyone  has a particular, unique set of skills that they can use not only to make a living, but to make a positive difference in a world of societal and environmental crises; a world so full of need and opportunity.

Of course, finding the right work is easier said than done: some people’s natural talents are buried under layers of social conditioning; others ‘do their thing’ so naturally, they don’t even realise how good they are at it. Others know perfectly well what their thing is, but struggle to make a living from it in today’s commercial working world.

I dream of a world in which everyone has work they love, and that makes full use of their unique skills. I dream of a society in which the main purpose of work is to benefit people and planet, in turn creating vibrant, resilient local economies.

The work I do now – coaching, writing and workshops on the topic about which I’m so fervent – is my contribution to bringing about such a world. After five years I’m still learning, and still out of my comfort zone sometimes (that’s where the best learning usually is). But, I count myself so very fortunate (especially when I look back on my steel-fixing day!) to have work that I love, that I’m good at – and that makes a positive difference in the world. There are some very capable steel fixers in the world, and some excellent administrators. They have their gifts; I have mine.

organisations hawkwood pic

With all that we’ve achieved as a species, surely it should be possible for everyone to be so fortunate in their work? We can all create a better working world, starting with ourselves.

The first steps are to  identify, clarify and believe in your gifts – and yes, we all have at least one! The next steps are finding the best way, or ways, for you to use those gifts, and turning that into reality.

As far as I know, we only have one life. We might as well make it count, and enjoy ourselves along the way!



Subversion, Security and Social Media

Someone dear to me recently warned me off expressing anti-government ideas and opinions on the internet. ‘They record everything,’ she told me.

I’ve been reflecting on that small statement.

Firstly, who are ‘they’? Well, they’re individuals employed by organisations paid for with public money (until and unless and until they are privatised and become competitive – god help us). People who have a) technology and b) legal clearance (probably) to ‘record everything’. GCHQ? Mi5? Mi6? The National Security Agency? The police? And perhaps other more shadowy security agencies, whose existence most of us are unaware of…

digital spy

Then, what does ‘record’ mean? My guess is that there is no recorded and filed repository of everything, electronic or otherwise. It would be so onerous and time-consuming that half the population would have to be working full time at recording the other half’s communications. Rather, it means anything you’ve written (and probably spoken) could be accessed retrospectively by security agencies.

By the same token, accessing ‘everything’ would be a waste of effort given that the vast majority of communications represent no threat to what we’ll call security for now. Professional communication spies would need good reason to focus on an individual, a group, or a cluster of communications. Monitoring is probably carried out according to a set of criteria, with clear goals and measures, as in any other government department. There is certainly a list of those whose communications are regularly checked – and probably a subset whose communications are routinely recorded.

So, is my near and dear person right to be worried about what I express and share online? Well, I’ve often expressed dissatisfaction, frustration and anger about the UK’s current government. But as public awareness and strength of feeling grows, I’m one of an increasingly large number. I’d be surprised (but not amazed) if I’m on a special list somewhere

If I am on such a list, should it worry me? Well, I have supported and encouraged anti-government action ranging from petition-signing to peaceful revolution. I do this not because I’m naturally subversive or anarchistic, but because I see clearly that our government consistently puts economic growth and profit above the wellbeing of people and planet, and fails to recognise that a healthy economy depends on healthy people and planet, not the other way round. This erroneous ideology causes suffering to people and other species, and untold environmental damage – much of it at a global scale and possibly irreversible.

While mainstream media is dominated by mindless entertainment, and controlled by the wealthy and powerful who depend on the continuance of unchecked capitalism, I’ll gratefully use the rich, diverse and sometimes crazy world of social media to share the work of those who uncover acts of injustice, cruelty and destruction, and the courageous and beautiful creative responses of those who realise, and care.

I’ll continue reaching out to those who maybe don’t understand the damage being done by the wealthy and powerful, or don’t realise how they unwittingly contribute to it through their work or their purchasing choices – or who know, at some level, but for various reasons feel they can’t make changes to the way they live (and we all know what that’s like…)

I said lightly to my concerned one, ‘They can’t put me in prison’. I don’t condone violence; what I and many others like me share isn’t illegal. But it is inflammatory. With the rise of social media, the government and powerful corporations are fast losing control of who knows what, who says what, who feels, thinks and believes what. This represents a serious threat, not to ‘security’ in the way that the government would have us believe, but to the destructive dominance of the wealthy and powerful. Communication is already monitored more closely, free speech debated more hotly, and across Europe laws purporting to address acts of terrorism are increasingly used to subdue and silence those who are vocal and active in their fight for Life versus Destruction.

Five years ago, it might have seemed inconceivable that you could end up in court for expressing anti-government sentiments. Today, it doesn’t seem so unlikely. For that reason alone, I believe it’s more important than ever to continue sharing information, exposing corruption and spreading myriad creative responses. This way, people are increasingly able to inform themselves, take personal and collective responsibility; create healthier ways of working and spending despite our government – ultimately either rendering it redundant, or replacing it with wiser, more compassionate leadership.

Whilst I’m waiting for that vision to become reality, I’ll post my subversive posts – even if they do record everything  – and fight for Life in the best way I know how.


Everyone is an Alchemist

Everyone is an alchemist, with the ability to transform a small or large part of the world they live in. And that includes you.

Because your skill comes so naturally to you, you may not recognise it as your unique gift (or gifts). Maybe you sometimes wonder why other people don’t do what you do so instinctively, or why they can’t do it so well. And, although you may not realise, you make what you do look easy to others – until they try it themselves, which is when your alchemist’s skill suddenly looks like magic!

In the years that I’ve been working with people seeking to find or express their gifts, I’ve learned that everyone is able to look at their own special area with an alchemist’s eye. As if by magic, they can discern what is current and what is potential; they intuitively understand what needs to happen next to bring about positive change. And isn’t that the point of all work?

Traditionally, alchemists transformed base metals to pure gold. But alchemy is also ‘a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination’.

I’ve had the privilege of working with people who use their unique form of alchemy to design living spaces, manage financial risk, farm organically, support motherhood, lead communities, transform understanding of dyslexia, keep a complex organisation ticking over, advise on food and nutrition… each using their particular blend of vision and action; of head, heart and hands.


My own alchemy is to discern people’s gifts: to see what is current and what is potential, and to work with them to transform their gifts and passion into a form of livelihood that contributes something positive to the world. And, I help people find ways of doing their work more skilfully: whether that involves developing more harmonious and fruitful working relationships, improving a technical skill or bringing their work into the world with greater confidence.

Some come to workshops or coaching sessions knowing what their gifts are, but unable to make a living from them. In these times of global and societal crises, some passionately want to make a difference in the world, but don’t know how. And sometimes people come not knowing what their gifts are, or believing they don’t even have one. But they always do!

Everyone is an alchemist. But sometimes it takes courage, work and patience for the gold to be able to shine.


Read more in my book, Hearing our Calling


Were you ‘popular’ at school?

Earlier this year my hairdresser asked me, ‘Were you in the popular group at school?’

I didn’t know straight away how to answer. Not because I was embarrassed to acknowledge membership of a particular group, but because I wasn’t aware of having been part of any group.

Over the twelve years of my school life, my closest friends included a boy friend, a quiet and mysterious friend, a couple of arty friends, a tomboy friend, a sporty friend, a couple of punk rocker friends and a geeky friend – possibly someone from every ‘group’ in variously defined classroom hierarchies or social structures.

I don’t know why I was such a butterfly. Maybe because I’m simply a bit unconventional, nonconformist, never really fitting in to prescribed structures. Maybe because I’m like a metamorphic rock, having passed through different phases over the years (unlike sedimentary rock types, who add layers of depth, and igneous rock types, who seem always to stay the same in essence.) Or maybe it was because I didn’t spend much time with other children till I started school, and so missed out on the ‘puppy socialising’ where bewildering social structures are learned. For whatever reason, I’ve always been on the periphery of things. I used to worry about this until I realised that I enjoy engaging with a range of cultures and activities, and being free to come and go.

At school I made friends with people because I liked them, and for no other reason; no other reason ever occurred to me. I remember one friend saying to me, ‘It just makes you feel so good, doesn’t it, when Polly smiles at you.’ I felt baffled. Polly came from a wealthy family, and tended to dominate the room. She wasn’t nasty; just not my type. Why would I be rapturous about being smiled at by someone I didn’t particularly like?

I’m not claiming to have been immune from friendship angst. The time when I was ostracised by my three best pals over a spontaneous quarrel was memorably painful, and seemed to go on for ever. And sometimes there were people I wanted to be friends with more than they wanted to be friends with me, and the sense of rejection I experienced was painful (and still is, because that still sometimes happens).

But it never occurred to me that there might be people who wanted to be friends with me more than I wanted to be friends with them, and that this might have caused them any pain or sorrow. Kids don’t think of that – at least I didn’t.

Since my hairdresser asked me that question, I’ve been thinking and talking with old friends and new about popular children. I’ve learned that ‘popular’ can mean many things to many people, and that so-called popular children often have a different notion of what it means to be in that group than everyone else does.

Some children are naturally much more aware of power dynamics than others. The ones who are aware of power dynamics – the ones to whom it matters – invariably think that everyone is as conscious of all the manoeuvring as they are; whereas plenty are largely oblivious to the relationships of children who aren’t their own friends.

A popular child can, of course, be someone who is so kind, or funny, or interesting, that everyone wants to be friends with them. But they can also be the ones who have the wealthiest families, and therefore the most expensive clothes and haircuts, and others want to be friends with them hoping that some of the glamour will rub off.

‘Popular’ can also mean the ones who are the most extrovert, most dominant, most confident; natural leaders, often with a sense of entitlement. Or it can mean the ones who are so terrified of the implications of not being in the ‘popular group’ that they use fear and manipulation to create a circle around them, and see to it that ‘outsiders’ are ridiculed and despised to make the contrast clear.

And of course there are some children – often with good and enduring qualities – who are the regular butt of insecurity-driven teasing, exclusion or cruelty. I sometimes hear the childhood stories of the adults they’ve become, in coaching sessions, or when I run workplace sessions on bullying.

One of the best things that any children can do is to recognise that social hierarchy is largely a matter of perception. It doesn’t matter (at least, it doesn’t need to) if children you don’t particularly like don’t particularly like you. It’s fine that some children have a few close friends, some have lots, and some move from friend to friend as they grow and change. Any approach is fine, as long as it brings considerably more joy than sorrow (and ideally considers others’ feelings too).

It’s often too late for many children, by the time they learn these things about friendship. And sadly, some never shake off the labelling. Because although the manoeuvring becomes more subtle, many of these playground principles are still around in adulthood, and throughout our lives. When we fully accept our own unique way of approaching friendship, and disregard others’ hierarchy perceptions, we can experience friendship with joy and fulfilment, whatever our playground.

 Silhouette, group of happy children playing on meadow, sunset, s‘I have learned that to be with those I like is enough’ – Walt Whitman

Is this the beginning of menopause?

Becoming fifty was a triumphal and splendid landmark. I marked it in ritual fashion, fasting on a Welsh mountain and passing a very dark night. The following day I visited an ancient stone circle, and descended with power coursing through me, and carrying grave responsibility.

A few months passed before this responsibility became clear, when I felt myself called to stand for parliament – a role which regularly took me out of my usual comfort zone. I was able to operate from a deep sense of having been allocated the task, of being held and supported in carrying it out. And I didn’t just operate; at times, it felt like I was flying.


I shall soon be 51, and I find myself sailing erratically away from the shores of the first part of my life. I’m not called to any grand task. Actually, I’m deeply unsure of myself and my direction, and such uncertainty threatens to undermine my effectiveness in the world. I’ve looked for explanations, such as post-election fatigue. But I have also gently begun to ask myself: is this the beginning of menopause?

My cycle is still regular, though for the last year or so I’ve noticed some ‘creep’: each month, it advances a day, or two, or three. After 36 years, I can’t plan holidays and other events around my period (which is increasingly a time of purdah, for reasons both physical and emotional). But more disruptive are occasions of cognitive meltdown: wrong turnings when I’m driving, forgetting what I was doing, and so on. Each time, these incidents surprise me. Sometimes they are funny. But not always. They can range from amusing to inconvenient through to screamingly, hair-tearingly frustrating. I’m told that rosemary helps with memory, so I keep a fresh sprig nearby.

Also disturbing is a sense of being pared right back to a vulnerable and deskilled rawness. Again and again. I first experienced this stripping down over three years ago. I learned to trust the process, sit it out… and eventually something new would emerge; good work. But this time … some days I have a deep conviction that I no longer know anything worth knowing, or have anything worthwhile to offer (and maybe never did).

More than ever, destruction and suffering in the world are overwhelming. At times I suspect that I no longer care. And yet there is always a thread of me that sparks back into life. It knows my work here is to support life, creativity and wellbeing, and knows how I do it best.

At times, I have no faith in any thing or any one, and I fully expect the world to have no faith in me, either. For a cynic, this might be unsettling; for an idealist, it can feel hopeless. Yet there are times when I do believe in kindness, grace and love: when I experience them (which happens more often when I risk seeking them).

A friend advised: when feeling hopeless, do delightful things. It’s good advice. I face the world more eagerly if I start the day walking somewhere beautiful rather than absorbing horror stories on Facebook about climate change or factory farming. But if the swamps of sadness have already claimed me for the day, trying to do delightful things is pointless because I have no capacity for delight.

Working is good, because I am fortunate enough to have work I love. It evokes my energy and passion, and restores a sense of skill. But I need space in between. I need to keep things relatively simple. It’s as if some enormous, organic process is slowly unfolding inside me, leaving me with little energy and focus for the outer world.

Naturally, each woman’s experience is different. Some are more affected than others; some notice the effects more than others. Practical and decisive women are often alarmed to find themselves impractical and indecisive, even weepy. Those who are already tender-hearted and prone to sadness can find their sensitivity almost unbearably heightened.

Someone recently observed that the world must be full of women covering up menopause. In my work I see that this is true: women hiding an upheaval of mind, body and soul from colleagues, from their families, and sometimes even from themselves. And they hide it for good reasons. Some feel intensely private about this timeless, sacred ritual. Some fear that they will be judged, or thought weak. And often they are right.

It’s not only men who can lack tolerance for the concept of menopause (and of course men can go through similar transformations). Young women grow impatient, perhaps fearful at some level of the journey they know they too must make one day. And many menopausal women deny their own experience. In what feels like a competitive, pitiless world, they vehemently reject the suggestion that menopause (or indeed menstruation) can affect behaviour and competence. But although the depth of menopause can drive amazing, creative work, it can also be frighteningly debilitating.

Equality doesn’t mean we are all the same. In fact, that particular feminist interpretation of equality has robbed women of the ability to recognise and honour their own and others’ important rite of passage, forcing it into shadow.

Can we find a way of acknowledging menopause, and indeed other transformational, hormone-rich times, in a way that is authentic, respectful and mutually supportive?

Suppose workplaces offered the option of Menopause Leave, or temporarily reduced hours, or temporary changes of task? Or responded with compassion to uncontrolled weeping? Many workplaces aim to be flexible, able to adapt to complexity. But what we call flexibility and adaptability are often only structural tweaks to a rigid traditional framework. A step towards working truly effectively with complexity is to respond creatively to the powerful, hidden emotional and bodily fluctuations of being human.

As I begin this important, turbulent crossing of unknown breadth, I’m guided by the many voices of women who have crossed before me. The losses and grief they speak of are balanced by stories of unexpected treasure – some reclaimed, some never before even dreamed of. And from their various tales, I take this precious reminder: my voyage will be smoother if I focus not on trying to grasp a slippery rudder, but on softening my grip that I might ride the waves with as much ease and grace as possible, until I reach that mysterious new shore.

Gym bunny or couch potato?

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: