The Moral Truth of Regifting

23 June 2010


The Potlatch ceremony of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest has been the focus of recent sociological interest for its elaborate institutionalization of gift giving.

In my forty-five years I have learned at least one moral truth, and it is this:

The more one gives, the more one is fulfilled; the more one demands, the more empty one is.

I will not attempt to give an exposition, much less an explanation of this that I consider to be a moral truth, but will for the moment leave it in its aphoristic form, for the interested reader to consider and come to his or her own understanding of it. A moral truth won in the world is worth a thousand unheeded admonitions from others, and one form of the winning of a truth is coming to one’s own understanding of it.

Since I am not going to attempt an exposition, what I am going to do with this that I have identified as a moral truth? If one agrees with me that this is a moral truth, and that generosity is the way to (naturalistic) beatitude, then the question of the good life becomes what will one give, and how?

What one gives is a function of what one can give, and there are conditions for the possibility of giving. One can only give that which one possesses. What does the individual possess? Our material possessions are the result of chance, a matter of the birth lottery. While we would do well to be generous in a material sense, there is a more profound sense of generosity that goes beyond the material. Ultimately what we have to give is the gift we have ourselves been given.

It is the gift that the individual possess that he is empowered to give. Perhaps there are individuals born with no gifts at all, but certainly the greater part of humanity consists of individuals, each of whom possesses some gift, some unique talent, some utterly unexpected, unpredictable, and unprecedented ability. It is this gift that the individual possesses that is the most valuable thing that the individual can give. What the source of an individual’s gift is, no one can say. But it is a gift, and in returning this gift to the world by giving generously of oneself, one is essentially regifting. This is the moral truth of regifting.

The spiral of generosity is a virtuous circle; the world is improved by it. The spiral of demand is a vicious circle, and the world is degraded by it. By relating oneself to the world in the attitude of generosity, one makes the presumption of participating in the world on the basis of giving, rather than on the basis of demanding, and this is a far better way of establishing one’s relationship to the world. If you remain skeptical, make an experiment of it: spend a week (or a month, or a year) only making demands, and then assess your life, and honestly look at the consequences of your demands. Were they fulfilled? Were you fulfilled by having your demands met by others? Then spend a week (or a month, or a year) only practicing generosity (to the extent that this is practically possible). Again, assess your life, and honesty ask yourself the outcome of your experience. Have you received more from life from demanding or from giving?

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