The Gift: Strings Attached

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Sam here with Chapter 7* of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

On Monday I took my daughter to Hershey Park for an afternoon of roller coasters, bumper cars and water slides. We went because a friend gave us tickets. Three tickets, in fact. Approaching the gate, it dawned on me that someone could use our third ticket. I scanned the waiting crowd of hundreds of people and quickly found a man with his family.

“Excuse me, sir, are you buying tickets today?” “Yes,” he replied. “Here.” I handed him a one-inch by three-inch piece of printed card-stock. “What’s this? Wait, how much is this?” “Nothing. There are two of us and I have three tickets.” “Are you serious? This is worth over fifty bucks!” “It was given to me as a gift. I’m just passing it along.”

No less than shocked, he couldn’t stop thanking me. Then he shook my hand. I kept thinking about The Gift book discussions this summer: Chapter 4 on how gifts bind us (he genuinely shook my hand), Chapter 3 on how people feel indebted to gift-givers (me to my donor and this man to me), and Chapter 2 on increase: “[T]he increase that comes from gift exchange must remain a gift and not be kept as if it were the return on private capital.” The increase on tickets given to me was a day of fun and connection and memories with my daughter – worth a lot more than $52.95. Perhaps it would bring increase to his family, too. I'll never know.

Confession: The thing is, I really want to know. I wanted to find someone who would appreciate the ticket. I scanned the crowd because I wanted to find a recipient who needed it and wouldn’t try to re-sell it. I wanted a return on my gift. Essentially, I wanted to “loan” him or her the ticket and charge interest to make my investment worthwhile. This chapter on usury did not leave me without benefit or conviction. Imagine if I had treated the Hershey Park man like the stranger who "asks for a few bushels of grain." Paraphrasing Hyde, "Not only would I remind him that gifts grow with use and that he should return the usance, but I’d tell him I’d like it all on paper and could he leave his stroller as collateral." Usury "appears when spiritual, moral, and economic life begin to be separated from one another...." Charging interest assumes the gift will not increase to me as the lender. Sadly, if I doubted the man would repay the loan, I may have either given elsewhere or changed the terms of the gift.

Questions to ponder: What if people not only returned/paid forward all gifts loaned to them, but voluntarily included the "usura, the fruit of its use"? Would we give with no strings attached? Would it still be called giving since there would be no risk involved?

*Note: We will finish our discussion on The Gift on August 24. As I read ahead this week and considered our hope to begin a new discussion in September, I took the liberty of skipping Part II. (Oh, the nerve!) I'll post on the Conclusion next week and wrap up on the following week. ~Your fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants leader, Sam. Oh and P.S., if you want to continue the discussion elsewhere, L.L. is going to go ahead with chapters 8-10.

Post written by Sam Van Eman.