The Gift: All Our Kin

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Sam here. When we started this conversation about Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, I mentioned that it challenges me. I’ve repeated as much throughout our discussions, but what I referred to then is still my real challenge: What’s mine is mine.

I like stewardship as a concept and I suppose I practice it enough to keep me from feeling overly selfish. But when the sharing of physical items threatens to cost me, I cower. I don’t like to give away the things I value. (And because I’m rather sentimental, I value a lot.)

Hyde opens Chapter 5 with a story from Carol Stack’s book, All Our Kin. In it, an urban ghetto family inherited enough money to make a down payment on a house, but within six weeks, the money had disappeared. Some went to a niece’s phone bill, some to an uncle’s funeral, some to a friend’s overdue rent, and on and on - to relatives and neighbors alike - until nothing remained. This family’s highly-connected, poor, interdependent network drained them of every inherited cent.

Or did they?

Stewardship says nothing is really mine; that I manage and distribute what has been given to me. I understand this when it comes to air in the sky or water in the ocean. I use some for personal consumption and enjoy it however I like, yet I claim no right to keep it from others. But what about an inheritance? Is this different? Does stewardship have conditions?

In the ghetto family’s kinship network, there were unwritten rules or, as Hyde puts it, “contracts of the heart,” which governed normal behavior. Nobody told them to give away their money. What belonged to them belonged to the community.

I struggle with this.

1. What do you do with inheritance money? What about with your education? Do you see these differently, and if so, why do we view some elements as private property and others as gifts?

2. Hyde writes, “When we speak of communities developed and maintained through an emotional commerce like that of gifts, we are therefore speaking of something of limited size.” Malcolm Gladwell argues persuasively about the magical Rule of 150 in his book, The Tipping Point, suggesting that when groups exceed this number, they break down. Does your group size (pick family, church or work) affect your sense of and commitment to stewardship?

Post written by Sam Van Eman.