Politics & Policy

The Gifts We Too Often Fail to Give

(Dreamstime image: Natalia Prokudina)
Too many of us ignore the deeper meaning of giving.

‘Every child, and most wives, have experienced the gift obviously purchased at the airport, in spastic response to the sudden memory of a birthday or an anniversary,” William F. Buckley wrote in a column for Playboy magazine on “What we get by giving.” The founder of the conservative National Review magazine where I’ve worked for some two decades would occasionally be invited to write for or be interviewed for Hugh Hefner’s libertine magazine. Though he didn’t necessarily share Playboy’s values, he must have recognized that many readers did. I wonder if this might be what Pope Francis means when he urges Christians to “go to the peripheries” with their mission of sharing the message of the Gospel.

Buckley wasn’t explicitly teaching the tenets of Christianity, but he was making the case for charity and its “rewards.” He affirmed the “generality” that “It is graceless to refuse a gift, even as it is graceless to refuse to give.” And with some humor, he went on to illuminate another trap: Giving as sport. He described himself as “an impulsive type, my enthusiasms . . . [are] pronounced and I need to share them, like good jokes.” He recalled being “captivated” by a particular style of Timberland shoes featuring “craggy rubber soles that never wear out,” and sending “a memo to a dozen friends demanding to know the length and width of their feet.” Two years later, he wrote, he found himself on vacation in Barbados with his friend Ronald Reagan, then the president of the United States. Reagan pointed to Buckley’s shoes and insisted that he wanted a pair for himself. Buckley of course enjoyed this, and wrote jokingly that, “That was when [Reagan] learned the meaning of supply-side economics.”

In that same column, Bill wrote about how “giving should be fun,” and about how giving was at the heart of his political philosophy, his faith, and his choice to live in the realm of ideas. Fun, he wrote, is “the enemy of those who wish to socialize pleasure.” He told the story of a landowner in Sweden who “announced his intention to bequeath to his village the large forest he owned. The town elders responded that they did not want to receive a forest as a gift from one of their townspeople; if they wanted a forest, they would appropriate one — taxing the citizenry for whatever compensation was owed to the man whose forest had been socialized. They deemed it undignified to receive a gift from someone who egotistically decided to make sure a gift.”

This tale of “Teutonic grimness,” Bill wrote, “leaves the taste of ashes in the mouth.” The problem, he added, with “socialist reasoning” is that when “everything belongs to everybody,” it no longer appears clear why one should accept a gift. Indeed, it becomes unclear what a gift is at all.

#related#We humans are gifts, creations not of our own making. I sometimes talk about gratitude, in the tradition of Bill’s appreciation for the “patrimony” we’ve been bequeathed to steward responsibly. It’s in many ways the antidote to a politics, a philosophy, and a way of living that assumes, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” That campaign slogan, which helped Barack Obama win the presidency eight years ago, always struck me as a perfect encapsulation of who we are today, sometimes for better but more often for worse. Our understanding of the world suffers when we can’t look beyond present circumstances and talents to what came before — to the wisdom, the experience, and the tradition handed down over centuries — as a guide to determining what ought to be treasured and protected going forward. Pope Francis talks about a “throwaway society,” and he’s right: We are all too content to treat God’s gifts as disposable, including human life. We are all too content to use people for convenience and utility, rather than treating their very lives with the reverence they deserve. Giving is about more than whatever we pick up for a holiday celebration. It’s about who we are. Are we gifts or not? Do we have gifts or not? Do we give of ourselves unto others or not? You may not be able to wrap those questions with a bow, but they make for the greatest of gifts when sincerely grappled with.

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