By Celia Coates
Many years ago, when I was young and had not been going to school in America for very long, I was surprised that after the Christmas vacation the question that kids asked each other was, “What did you get?” I didn’t really know what to answer. There had been nuts and candies along with the usual orange in the toe of one of my father’s large socks hanging from the fireplace mantel beside the ones for my sisters. We didn’t “believe” in Santa Claus so I knew that it was my parents who’d given me a book and a jacket – one that I needed. It wasn’t a matter of how much money we had, it was that Christmas was not really about getting stuff.
It is so different these days – it’s all about getting stuff. There’s an ad that is shown often during the evening TV hours that highlights this. It’s about people giving themselves luxury cars, making sure that they get what they most want by arranging for it to arrive in their driveways gift-bowed and tagged, for example, with “To James from James.” It’s giving and getting all in one move.
There’s a word much in use these days to describe the behavior of a few people in leadership positions as being “transactional” that indicates still another kind of giving-and-getting exchange. It seems to mean something like, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Or, it’s about basing exchanges on, “What’s in it for me?” It has little to do with thoughtfulness or generosity.
These kinds of giving and getting leave me feeling peevish and disapproving. Why? And, who does that help? So, when I’m annoyed, I’ve found it useful to ask myself what is really going on. I’d like to write another paragraph first and then say something about that.
Here’s a quote from Fareed Zakaria’s new book, TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD:
“Most fourteenth-century Europeans asked why God would allow this hell on earth and questioned entrenched hierarchies – which had the ultimate effect of helping Europe break out of its medieval malaise and setting in motion the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. From death and horror came science, modernity, and growth.”
Zakaria went on to ask,
“With Covid-19, thankfully, we do not face the same mass mortality (as in the medieval bubonic plague). But might our era’s pandemic provoke a similar spirit of societal introspection, an equivalent shock to our complacency?”
I’ve found that my peevish disapproval comes – at a superficial level – from my childhood when giving yourself splendid gifts was against the rules. Actually, more than against the rules, it just wasn’t part of what people did. Gifts were part of a ritual of exchange filled with meaning that was centered in religion: gifts were given by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus, a baby who was himself a gift. Then, at a profound level, I feel deep dismay at how out of balance our very materialistic society has become. In too great a measure we have lost our sense of community and of healthy generosity, a sense of the common good. Our striving to have fancy stuff to prove that we are successful people with good lives has become destructive. It has become greed.
Whatever our religious beliefs, glitter and presents are fun and fine, especially in the dark of winter. I do not want to stop wrapping gifts to give to people I love. And, I enjoy receiving gifts – perhaps a certificate so I can indulge my wish for books from Barnes and Noble. The rebalancing we need isn’t about some foolish deprivation, it’s about looking with a renewed sense of good exchange towards how we might live and what else we might create.
To return to what Fareed Zakaria had to say – in the Middle Ages grand advances came after the death and horror of a plague. It seems that the shock of having to endure Covid-19 could remind us of what really matters and the pandemic might shake our society out of some of its troubling complacency. This chaos might set in motion some “societal introspection” and help us to question some of our “entrenched hierarchies” in this time.
The nurses and doctors, the bus drivers, grocery store clerks, and delivery workers – along with so many others – who have continued to provide for us have given us many gifts, sometimes with great sacrifice for themselves. They truly have been essential, not like (here again is my feeling troubled by destructive materialism) the hedge fund managers and others in the money industry who, as far as I know, have benefitted very few with their financial manipulations.
WINN posts are usually about exploring and experiencing the full nature of reality – the great expanse of both the material and non-material realms. And they are about what happens to our values when we widen our perspective to see beyond the physical world. The ancient wisdom is that we are all connected, that kindness and taking care of one another are essential. As America looks at what has happened in this terrible year, we are reviewing not just our history of pandemics, but also our history of racism, injustice, and economic inequality. We can take a new look now at what everyone can give and everyone can get.
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TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD, by Fareed Zakaria, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2020
The image that heads this post is from http://www.freestocks.org.