The only thing I ever get for Christmas is depressed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about giving.
For some time now – long before the “holiday season” started luring us all closer to suicide with endless ads for commercial bullshit that, thanks to the wonders of technology, can now spy on you – I was thinking about what Burning Man can learn about gifting form the Parable of the Widow’s Mite.
Don’t look at me like that. I think about stuff like this. It’s what I do. Yes, I need more hobbies. Shut up.
Seriously people, it was either this or a post about Star Wars.
The actual text of the parable (from the Gospels of Mark and Luke) is very short, and goes basically like this: Jesus and a bunch of his pals are hanging around a temple, because I guess that’s what they do, and were watching people put offerings into the collection box. Which, let’s be honest, is no less stupid than a whole lot of things you watch on Facebook. Anyway, there’s a bunch of rich people putting big, generous, offerings in. Eventually the box is passed around to a poor old widow, who puts in two very small coins (called “mites”). After it’s all over, Jesus says that the widow’s gift was most impressive in the sight of God, because the rich people all gave of their surplus – they gave what they had plenty of – while the widow gave of her poverty, she gave what she didn’t have.
That’s the lesson.
Now it’s most commonly interpreted as an exhortation to give ‘till it hurts – endorsing a kind of gifting masochism. That if your gift doesn’t leave you bleeding or hungry at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right.
Which … meh. I mean, good for people who are inspired to do that, they may truly exhibit nobility of spirit, but, it’s a pretty shallow reading. It takes the most obvious surface interpretation and calls it a day.
Less often, but it’s definitely out there, the Parable of the Widow’s Mite is combined with some other scripture that I won’t go into (if you’re into serious Bible Study, this is probably the wrong website for you, although thanks for reading you oddly confused person you) to serve as a social critique of systemic economic inequality. The parable turns out to not be about the widow and her gift at all, but about the injustice of a world that makes her poor.
Which, sure, is also okay. By all means, let’s look structural economic issues square in the face. But … it’s kind of odd to take the emphasis off the poor widow in her own parable, isn’t it? I mean, the socio-economic version of this parable really makes her irrelevant, robs her choice of any meaning or agency, and therefore to my mind really misses the point. The social critique may be entirely right, but if it reduces the widow to a cipher, a victim of events rather than an active person who chooses to give, then it’s missing something important.
The interpretation of the parable that I like best is that something special happens when you give out of your poverty rather than your surplus: when you give what you don’t have.
And it gets most interesting and profound of all when you stop thinking about giving in exclusively financial terms. Which is surely the right thing to do. How shallow is our approach to life if we think that only money can represent generosity?
Put these two things together, and suddenly something important snaps into place: giving what you don’t have is a fraught and powerful psychological act. If you don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention, offering someone your undivided attention is a far more potent act than throwing money at them. If you don’t have time, spending time on something is giving out of your poverty. If you are lonely, and don’t have friends, offering friendship to others is a heady moment. If you feel unlistened to, listening to others is a soulful and momentous gift. If you live in a small apartment but have plenty of cash, offering crash space to someone is a wholly different kind of generosity than offering someone the money to get a hotel room
Giving what you don’t have is a profound experience, one that has the capacity to change how we relate to the world and who we are. It is one that I think happens a great deal on the playa, that in many ways is baked into Burning Man culture, where principles like Immediacy, Communal Effort, and Radical Inclusion push us in directions that we otherwise tend to use money to avoid going in. Sometimes, that is, we use financial gifts – giving out of our surplus – not in a spirit of generosity but to avoid engaging. To protect ourselves form having to spend time or pay attention or reach out.
Giving out of our poverty has us step across the borders we have set for ourselves, putting us on a journey to discover what is on the other side. And that has the potential to truly change things.
Having said all this, I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong with giving from your surplus. Giving gifts is always a step in the right direction, and gifts are profound when they bring real pleasure or make a real difference in people’s lives. And really, what else is a surplus for but to make people happy and life better? Burning Man can only happen – as an organization yes, but in particular as a kind of culture – because people give, wherever it comes from, in whatever form it takes.
But I strongly suspect that the gifts that end up meaning the most to people, that change the life of the giver as much or more than that of the recipient, that best create the experience of “Burning Man,” follow the example of the Widow’s Mite, and are gifts given from lack – be it time, or attention, or engagement, or comfort, or love, or solace, or yes, even money.
That these are the kinds of gifts, and the kinds of experiences, that leave you challenged and awe struck, part of something meaningful, and eager to give more.
Thus endeth the lesson.
Happy Holidays. If that’s your thing.