The Art of Giving
A Yale theologian reflects on cultivating generosity in a graceless culture.
By Miroslav Volf
The first thing I saw was a tear—a huge, unforgettable tear in the big brown eye of a ten-year-old girl. Then I saw tears in her mother’s eyes. And in all these tears, just enough joy was mixed with pain to underscore that pain’s severity: their joy at seeing him, their three-month-old brother and son, and their intense pain that it was the first time they’d seen him since he was just two days old, when they’d kissed him goodbye. I sensed in those tears the ache that he, flesh of their flesh, was being brought to them for a brief visit by two strangers who were now his parents, and the affliction of knowing that the joy of loving him as a mother and sister would never be theirs.
The joy and the pain of those tears led me to a repentance of sorts. My image of mothers who put their children for adoption, though not as bad as that of the fathers involved, was not exactly positive either. I could not shake the feeling that there was something deficient in such an act. The taint of abandonment marred it, an abandonment that could be understandable and certainly was tragic, but abandonment nonetheless. To give one’s child to another, it had seemed to me, was to fail in the most proper duty of a parent: to love no matter what.
As I was reflecting on those tears, I came across a passage in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. “Witness the pleasure that mothers take in loving their children. Some mothers put their infants out to nurse, and though knowing and loving them do not ask to be loved by them in return, if it be impossible to have this as well, but are content if they see them prospering; they retain their own love for them even though the children, not knowing them, cannot render them any part of what is due to a mother.” The text comes from Aristotle’s discussion of friendship. He used the example of mothers to make plausible that “in its essence friendship seems to consist more in giving than receiving affection.” For Aristotle, a “birth mother” would manifest the kind of love characteristic of a true friend, a love exercised for that friend’s sake, not for benefits gained from the relationship.
“It is hard to know that you have a child in the world, far away from you,” wrote Nathanael’s birth mother in her first letter to us. It is hard because love passionately desires the presence of the beloved. Yet it was that same love that took deliberate and carefully planned steps that would lead to his absence. In a letter she wrote for him to read when he grows up, she told him that her decision to put him up for adoption was made for his own good. “I did it for you,” she wrote repeatedly, adding, “Some day you will understand.”
She loved him for his own sake, and therefore she would rather have suffered his absence if he flourished than have enjoyed his presence if he languished; her sorrow over his avoidable languishing would overshadow her delight in his presence. For a lover, it is more blessed to give than to receive, even when giving pierces the lover’s heart. My image of birth mothers has changed: “She who does not care quite enough” has become “she who selflessly gives.” When we parted, a smile had replaced the tears on the face of our son’s birth mother. Now it was my turn to cry. Back at home, with him in one arm and an open album she made for him in the other, I shed tears over the beauty and the tragedy of her love.
About three months earlier, the most extraordinary thing had happened on an ordinary day in an ordinary maternity ward between three ordinary human beings. After chatting with us for half an hour or so—to assure herself once again that we were the right parents for her child—Nathanael’s birth mother called the nurse and asked her to bring in her two-day-old baby. There he was, wonderful to the point of tears, rolled in to us in a crib. She took him and held him for a while in her arms, in a last maternal embrace. Then she handed him over to my wife, Judy. In one simple act, painfully sad for her and wonderfully joyful for us, she gave him to us, and she gave us to him.
She gave us that most incredible gift at about 11 o’clock one beautiful March morning. Just one hour earlier, a man in a dark uniform wearing dark sunglasses had given us something entirely different. He had appeared at the window on the driver’s side of my car. As I rolled it down, my ears were still ringing with the ominous, evenly paced sound of his boots hitting the pavement. “Driver’s license and insurance card!” I still did not know what I had done to be stopped by the police. Even when I had first seen the flashing red and blue lights behind me, I had been puzzled. Then, as he paced back to his car, it dawned on me. We had stopped at a doughnut place at an intersection to get a quick bite in place of the breakfast we had missed. After finding out that a child would be given to us, we had had only 24 hours to get our nest ready, and we had stayed up until four o’clock in the morning trying to name our boy. From the parking lot in front of the doughnut place, I had not seen that the street to our right was one-way. After a bite and a sip of coffee—tired, excited, and a bit bewildered about what was to happen—I drove out onto that one-way street the wrong way and positioned myself to turn right toward the hospital. Right in front of me, on the other side of the intersection, was a police car. Soon the siren was on, and I was pulled over.
Not knowing that in the U.S. you aren’t supposed to get out of the car to talk to a police officer, I opened my door, took one step, and said, “Mr. Officer, we’ve just had this wonderful news…” I was interrupted in mid sentence. “Get back into your car!” he barked at me. I tried one more time: “May I explain…” Again, I was interrupted by that same bark, more irritated this time: “Get back into your car, I said!” Clad in a uniform, with his eyes—those windows of the soul—hidden behind dark shades, he was all power, all law, all business. His humanity? Locked up somewhere deep inside, underneath the shiny police belt buckle. His generosity? Hidden behind the badge of office. Within the space of one hour, I got a nasty ticket from a gruff cop, and a tender child from a loving birth mother.
I don’t expect police officers to give out candy for traffic violations. But even in the old communist Yugoslavia where I grew up, usually you could talk to traffic police like human beings. Maybe my experience on the streets of Southern California was an exception. But it fits into a larger pattern of what we may call the gracelessness that is slowly spreading like a disease throughout many of our cultures. Some may suggest that we are no worse off today than we were 50 years or even two centuries ago. My sense is that we are. But my main point is not to note a decline, but to name a problem. We live in a culture in which, yes, extraordinary generosity does happen. But at the same time, that culture is largely stripped of grace.
It’s not a gracelessness that’s necessarily apparent at first glance, but it nonetheless underlies so many of our interactions. If I were to say that today everything is sold and nothing is given, that would be an exaggeration. But like any good caricature, it distorts reality in order to draw attention to what is characteristic. Mainly, we’re set up to sell and buy, not give and receive. We tend to give nothing free of charge and receive nothing free of charge. “The person who volunteers time, who helps a stranger, who agrees to work for a modest wage out of commitment to the public good, who desists from littering even when no one is looking … begins to feel like a sucker,” wrote Robert Kuttner in “Everything for Sale.” To give is to lose.
It’s not just that we are calculating rather than generous. In buying and selling, we are often not even fair. “You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate,” the saying goes. With only our own interest in mind, we try to squeeze the last drop out of those with whom we are dealing. Far too often, power—not fairness and certainly not generosity—is the name of the game. We assert ourselves and our own interests through raw physical strength, political connections, or loads of cash, through sexual prowess, sarcastic comments, lies and half-truths, through anything that can serve as a weapon in this low-grade war called life. We fight, and we often take spoils or go away defeated. Whether in business, politics, family, or education, the big fish eat the little ones. Laws and regulations do limit excessive abuse. But laws and regulations only mark the space in which the war is waged. They don’t eliminate the war.
Sex is as good a site as any to observe the slide away from generosity, through self-gratification, profit maximizing, and selling and bartering to nasty warring. Watch any currently popular TV series—“Sex in the City” or “Desperate Housewives” for example—and it would never occur to you that sex might be a gift two people in a lifelong covenant give each other, a sacrament of their lasting love. Instead, partners randomly “hook up,” each hungry to sexually satisfy some inchoate craving that has no definite object and can never find rest. They crave chocolate, they grab a chocolate bar; they crave sex, they just grab the most willing partner. Worse still, wars are waged with sex. Sex can bring status and define who belongs and who doesn’t. It can serve to inflict a sweet revenge or to reward cooperation, or it can be a tool to manipulate and dominate. By having sex, we can easily do almost anything other than truly give and receive—give and receive pleasure and give and receive each other as treasured lovers.
Loss of generosity doesn’t just leave us sexually unfulfilled and in search of pleasures that are ever more intense but never truly satisfying. Left unchecked, the slide away from generosity ultimately robs us of significant cultural achievements on which our flourishing, as individuals and communities, depends. Let’s consider just a few of the losses a lack of generosity can put into motion. Without generosity, our economic system would falter and the exchange of goods and services could easily become unsustainable exploitation of the poor by the rich. Without generosity, our democratic political system would decay, and powerful interest groups would likely exclude much of the electorate from participation and rule them to their detriment. Without generosity, our educational system couldn’t be sustained; nothing can secure the services of good teachers who are, by definition, neither sellers nor takers but givers who cannot be bought even if they do get paid. The list could go on.
A “rose” from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” reminds us of a more personal kind of loss that comes from a lack of generosity, an intimate loss that, at the same time, is a loss of a whole world of meaning. From the star where he tended three volcanoes and a single rose, the little prince found his way to Earth, where thousands of roses can be found in people’s gardens. “People where you live,” the little prince said to his pilot friend, “grow five thousand roses in one garden … yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose”… And he added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
Yet to find that for which you are searching in a single rose is more than just a matter of looking with the heart. For the heart to see rightly, the hand needs to give generously. That’s the deeper wisdom the little prince goes on to reveal.
His mysterious affair with the rose began when he responded to the rose’s simple request, “Would you be so kind as to tend to me?” The gift of care made it his rose, the only one in the whole world. “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important,” the wise fox told him. Take that gift away, and the one special rose blends into 100,000 other roses, beautiful and interesting for a while, but, in the long run, ordinary and even boring.
The gift of care didn’t just transform the rose, however. When the little prince looked up to the stars above the Earth, they shone in a new way because on one of them he had left behind the rose he loved. It cast a spell over the whole heavenly firmament, like a buried treasure casts a spell on all the islands where you think it may lie hidden. That one rose changed his whole world. And what did his unfaltering loyalty to a flower do to him? It gave him a new radiance, a halo, invisible but palpable. “The image of the rose [is] shining within him like a flame within a lamp, even when he’s asleep,” said the pilot. He was a boy in love, vibrating with desire and yet strangely at rest. He had found what he was looking for.
On that cool March morning, after the rude cop let us go, we received a “rose”—and then another, four years later, on a hot July midday. Each of those roses, Nathanael and Aaron, said to us, “Would you be so kind as to tend to me?”—well, not in those words but in the piercing and relentless cries of a baby hungry for food, for touch, for tender and soothing words, for the presence that delights, for time and space to grow, in a word, of a baby hungry for love. So we tended them, and out of millions of little boys, they became our boys, unique and more precious to us than all others put together.
Like our sons, all of us were a gift when we were born—a peculiar yet most beautiful of gifts, a gift that at first only receives, a gift that gives back only the joy parents might feel in giving and the delight they might experience in the child’s flourishing. Often enough, tiredness chokes up joy, and worry extinguishes delight. But still, most parents do their best to give, and they do so knowing well that their gifts will never be returned in full, but perhaps will be paid forward, that children will give to their own children or to others they encounter on their life’s journey.
We know it is good to receive, and we have been blessed by receiving not only as children but as adults as well. But Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and part of growing up is learning the art of giving, as well as that of receiving. If we fail to learn this art, we will live unfulfilled lives, and in the end, chains of bondage will replace the bonds that keep our communities together. If we just keep taking or even trading, we will squander ourselves. If we give, we will regain ourselves as fulfilled individuals and flourishing communities.
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Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. His book Exclusion and Embrace won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award in religion.
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