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Giving Is a Form of Attention

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2022

I’ve been reading David Whyte’s Consolations over the past couple of weeks, skipping around, seeking illumination, counsel, and understanding for some of life’s present challenges. The chapter on giving was particularly resonant; here’s an excerpt:

Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving; it is a form of attention itself, a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.

The first step in giving may be to create a budget, to make a list or to browse a shopfront or the web, but the essential deed is done through the door of contemplation: of the person, the charity, the cause, finding the essence of the need, the person or the relationship. Out of this image comes the surprise of understanding and the ability again to surprise the recipient by showing that someone else understands them and, through a display of virtuosity, can even identify needs they cannot admit themselves. The full genius of gift-giving is found when we give what a person does not fully feel they deserve, but that does not overstretch the point; it is the appropriate but surprising next step in their lives. It disarms and moves and empowers all at once, while gratifying the one who gives beyond most everyday satisfactions.

To give is to make an imaginative journey and put oneself in the body, the mind and the anticipation of another. To give is to make our own identities more real in the world by committing to something specific in the other person and something tangible that could represent that quality. To give is also to carry out the difficult task of putting something of our own essence in what we have given. The perfect gift may be tiny and inexpensive, but accompanied by a note that moves the recipient; the perfect gift may be enormous, extravagant, expensive and jaw-dropping as a courageous act of flamboyance and devil-may-care love, but to give appropriately always involves a tiny act of courage, a step of coming to meet, of saying I see you, and appreciate you and am also making an implicit promise for the future.

See also Friendship, an essay of Whyte’s I revisit every few months.