When giving goes viral

Sep 25, 2010

Earlier this month, the movie Pay It Forward ran a couple of times on one of the few cable channels we get in this house (we do use Netflix and a Roku player to stream a ton of movies). I’ve seen that movie before, but I watched a bit again anyway, because I know my life has been touched by quite a few instances of giving. I have been blessed with gifts large and small from generous grandparents, parents, friends, villagers and even strangers.

In this post from 2005, We’re all poor, I mentioned the food deliveries my family would get from a generous priest on St. Croix (Catholic priests have long been kind to my family, one reason I was on the road to the life of a friar; my post A family orientation is key to understanding why I didn’t become a priest).

Later, when I went to college, my aunt and uncle offered to buy all my textbooks, because my aunt’s uncle had bought all of her college textbooks. As he said to her, she said to me: “When you’re in a position to do something similar for someone else, do so.”

Today, I talked with a friend who has recently been in need of some financial help, and we remarked on cultural differences that determine whether someone is comfortable asking for money from family members, friends or a widely distributed community (such as all our overlapping online social networks). One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is the sole line written in the front of my Moleskine notebook: For the asking. As in, ask in order to receive, but also be prepared to provide when I’m asked.

[interlude] I’m asking around now for tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorship for ScienceOnline2011, and am also about to ask for just one thousand for the BlogTogether Birthday Bash (details will be in my next post).[/interlude]

Of course, the expectations about how we repay someone’s generosity is an important discussion. My aunt and uncle made clear I was to pay it forward. Fannie Mae has made it clear that the money lent to us to buy this house is to be paid back, with interest, within 30 years.

I loved the tradition in Vanuatu of never returning a plate or dish — which had been brought to the house filled with laplap or fresh fruit — empty, but instead with part of a meal you had prepared or fruit you had gathered. In a village of subsistence farmers, giving meant giving back.

In fact, wherever I’ve lived, I’ve tried hard to be attuned to the ways people give and the ways people receive. Let’s all give that more than a moment of thought.

Anton Zuiker

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