The holidays recruit a host of sentiments about giving, and the message to ‘give more than you receive’ is expressed readily and at-large. It feels good to give generously to others and to engage in many kind acts. I often wonder however, to what extent people actually strive to give more than they receive (or rather, take), on an objective, quantitative level. Admittedly, I have a lot of work to do in this area so one of my goals for 2015 is to be more aware of my give-take balance and strive towards reducing my giving deficit.
In a given day we are constantly taking from the earth and taking from others in ways that we may not equate with the typical give and receive mentality often associated with generosity through kind acts or tokens of appreciation. The latter has its place (and is something I write positively about on this blog), but if we are thinking critically about how much we give and take in our lives we must go deeper. Think of all the ways we take from our environment every single day. For example (this example is hypothetical and does not refer specifically to my real life), I may wake up in the morning, enter the bathroom, turn on the light and then turn on the faucet. I am already taking up energy and using up some of our earth’s precious resource–water. I am already in a giving deficit. I may use a fuel dependent vehicle or eat something that comes from an animal or is ridden with pesticides. Again, I am taking from the earth by contributing to pollution in our atmosphere and in our soil, not to mention perhaps taking the life of an animal. I may then purchase something that contains plastic. Energy, water and resources were taken from the earth to create this product, which contains a material that cannot decompose or give back to the earth in a natural way. I may then treat myself to a relatively expensive coffee that is not fair trade. I have taken again from the earth and from less fortunate people in consuming something that contributes to the mass production of an energy-intensive product by people who aren’t being paid enough to live well. Or, I may buy bottled water. Perhaps unknowingly, I am contributing to the commodification of an essential resource, which increases the disparities in food and water security amongst rich and poor (not to mention the environmental footprint of all the processing and packaging of that water!).
Now, some of you may be thinking “…so what is one to do? Stop living altogether?” or perhaps may object by saying “…but you are contributing to the economy by purchasing goods and services and what would cocoa bean farmers do if they had no money at all?!” Moreover, you may say “…what about acts of love to friends and family? You can’t quantify that kind of giving.” I hear these statements loud and clear and I don’t have an exact calculation to solve the give-take equation, but I personally feel that the way the majority of people in the industrialized nations live, creates a massive giving deficit. Actually, I think we live in a critical thinking deficit, which is a root cause of the problem. Most of us, especially those of you reading this blog are generous, kind-hearted individuals with the best of intentions, trying to do as much good in the world as possible. I do believe that there is an abundance of positive intention and love in the world and I honestly think that it may be very hard, if not impossible to get out of a giving deficit and into a quantitatively true giving surplus, given that just living and being alive on this planet uses up resources. I do however think that we have many choices as to how we live and we can strive to reduce our giving deficit by giving back more effectively and knowledgeably. There are many, many indirect consequences to a given action. Most altruistic actions come at an opportunity cost. Think critically and dig deeper through research and education to understand more about what you may be taking in your efforts to give, and try and consider where the net balance lies. This is something I am continually working on. I just actually learned (from reading this book) that many teachers, in their desire to help and be sensitive towards struggling students (who may struggle for a variety of reasons–financial, social, mental health), may lower their expectations of them, but research has shown that this only has the opposite effect of helping, as it perpetuates their opportunity gap–the opportunity to receive higher-order learning tasks that challenge their thinking and help them develop rich thinking skills–not to mention makes them feel their disadvantage all the more.
So, what can one do to work towards reducing their giving deficit? As a first step, take notice of your give-take balance in your everyday life. Give time and energy to advocating for living wage work. Consume less…MUCH LESS. Challenge yourself critically to understand more about where your products come from or what your environmental footprint may be for a given action and then choose your most sustainable course of action. Be comfortable being uncomfortable with your weaknesses or potential flaws and biases (is your good deed mainly to make yourself feel good? is it a bandaid solution or more structural in nature? would you give up a luxury you have in your life for the well-being of those less fortunate?). I think these are hard questions (and ones to which I can’t necessarily answer perfectly) but are decent first steps in striving to reduce our giving deficit. At the end of each day, do a quick mental review of both the giving and taking moments of your day, from the more obvious to the more subtle and ask yourself where your balance lies and how you could have taken just a little less. Give more, take less in 2015! Good luck!