American culture 103: Still useful after all these years..?

7 Jun

Continuing, but by no means wrapping up, the “American culture” series… (and with all of the caveats of the previous two posts...)

* * *

That donating used stuff as GIK for disaster response or long-term community development work in other countries is a bad idea seems so obvious to me, that I occasionally have to reconstruct in my own head the cultural logic which drives it.

It’s rooted in two different but closely related ideas in American culture. First, that used stuff is still valuable. And second, that used things are still valuable because they can be used for something other than their original purpose.

This is the behavioral artifact of a time when people didn’t have very much. This idea, the valuing and curating of stuff in American culture goes back as far the landing at Plymouth Rock, but really became codified in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, including “The Great Depression” when all but a few wealthy elite in American society literally scraped by. It was a time when people had to get as much life as possible out of whatever things they had, whether those things were clothing, shoes, books, household items like furniture or dishes. Shoes and clothing were passed on to younger siblings; furniture, dishes and other household items were passed on to other generations as heirlooms.

It is possible to find stories of great inter-community generosity during this period – stories of the very poor who were helped by their incrementally less poor neighbors through donations – often anonymous – of used clothing for children, a cooking pot, or what have you. And it was during this period that America saw the emergence of the community and church-based charities, one of the most famous of which is now Goodwill Industries International. Over and above any genuine or not-genuine altruism on the part of the donor was the notion that used stuff was still useful.

In later decades, after the grinding poverty of The Great Depression, donating used stuff to charity gave way somewhat to another great American tradition: the garage sale. The concept is simple. You have stuff that you no longer need or want. Sell it from your garage. And to Americans, the garage sale is one of those win-wins in life. The seller gets something back on their original investment; the buyer gets something they want, often at the fraction of the cost of buying it new in the store.

Although online market places like Craigslist are starting to take over some of their market share, garage sales remain a force in suburban American culture. And whether you’re bidding for it on eBay or haggling for it in someone’s front yard on a summer afternoon, the driving assumptions are the same: used stuff is still useful.

The related idea that used stuff – okay, junk – can be reused as something else lives on in American culture as well. The facts that you can now purchase online painted used circular saw blades; that there are not only collectors, but also collector clubs and events for collector clubs of… glass & porcelain insulators; that someone’s online business is taking custom orders for lamps made from old musical instruments; and that there are so many awesome uses for used whiskey barrels I think all speak in different ways to the idea that used stuff is still useful.

Either way, every time we plunk a broken appliance or stained garment into the receiving bin at our local thrift store rather than simply throwing it away, we affirm that cultural logic. Used stuff is still useful, we like to tell ourselves. Surely someone can use it. And this has repercussions for how Americans in general understand humanitarian aid.

* * * * *

I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I also participate in this dusty little corner of American culture to some extent: Throughout my early teenage years I wore a steady supply of hand-me-down clothing (including the occasional pair of shoes) from a kid, a couple of years older than me, who’s family attended the same church. In some cases, my mom passed those exact same clothes on to another kid, also at that church, a couple of years younger than me. And even as recently as last week, my wife was quite pleased when our neighbor across the street and down a few houses brought over a bag of lightly used clothing outgrown by her 13-year-old daughter, for passing on to our daughter. And we’re in no way unique: many of my friends and neighborhood acquaintances practice the same ritual.

My grandmother – bless her – passed away a few years ago at 90-something, her basement literally packed full of junk, much of which she purchased for under $2.00 per item at garage sales. She spent her last days convinced she might one day have a use for those random salt shakers or read those “Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics.” (I once won, hands down, a gag gift Christmas party with a pair of ugly-ass ceramic yard gnomes that I snagged from Gramma’s basement…). My own mother looks longingly out the car window as we drive past those shops full of stuff made from other stuff: lampshades made out of seashells or a toilet paper dispenser that looks like a standing bear, carved by chainsaw from an old piece of driftwood.

It’s hard to think one’s way past the idea that used stuff is still useful. Last year I made a special trip to Michigan, the sole purpose of which was to forcibly remove from my parent’s house a computer that they purchased new in year 2000, and then set them up with new ones. Their old computer took 30 minutes to boot up, and a solid hour to upload a 400kb file via dial-up… and even so, as I unceremoniously piled the components in the “recycle” pile, they wondered aloud: “It still looks good… maybe we could donate it to the local grade-school?” They’d carefully cleaned the screen and dusted the keyboard for ten years. Surely it must still be useful… (Don’t worry – I didn’t let them donate it.)

There’s irony here, if you think about it. For all of the waste that Americans produce and/or participate in, we can’t seem to shake the idea that our used stuff still has some life in it, that “Africans” would be able to find some use for our old T-shirts. And by the way, it’s not only Americans: some of the best of the best in #SWEDOW came from non-American sources. But I think that this notion that used stuff is still useful is part of a particularly American charity complex, right along with our desire to be the hero and with our de facto assumption that it is our right to help.

The idea that stuff can be used for something other than what it was originally intended for is similarly powerful. In my opinion, this – along with a common misperception that for those who have nothing anything is helpful – is what drives the belief that sending sea containers full of used stuff or even surplus new stuff is somehow a good idea. Surely they can do something with it… And to go even further, I think this is also basically what drives both skilled and unskilled volunteer programs. It’s what’s behind those youth pastors trying to take highschool kids to Haiti, or what drives completely inexperienced amateurs to show up and offer to “help.” Surely this stuff can be used for something… or, surely they can do something to help…

In the context of international aid and development, when the talking points coming out of NGOs and the media coverage of big disasters is, “these people have lost everything”, or, “these people are terribly poor and a little bit will make a big difference”, the initial reaction by many Americans is approximately: they have nothing. We have stuff. Let’s give them some. Whether it’s a bin full of used shoes, or a container full of new feminine products, or a van-load of high-school students on spring break, the automatic assumption is, this can all be used for something. And in those contexts it can be incredibly difficult to hear the message that, yes, they’re incredibly poor but they don’t really need what you have to offer.

* * *

None of this is in any way meant to excuse packing up loads of used stuff, whether it’s shoes or clothing or high-tech medical equipment, and carting it off to the third world because doing so is in our culture and we mean well. Nor is it meant to excuse the youth pastors or amateur do-gooders because they’re really trying to help. It is meant, instead, to point out the fallacy in inherent in our own American cultural logic. Our depression-era values of frugality and reusing everything and passing our stuff on to others served us well… during The Great Depression.

But here’s another irony: the world has changed, and while we might use the most up-to-date gadgets, at a cultural level where local charity has become our paradigm for international aid, we have not changed with it. For as progressive as we see ourselves in some areas, when it comes to how we as a general culture think about international aid, we’re stuck in about 1932.

23 Responses to “American culture 103: Still useful after all these years..?”

  1. didier 7 June, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    I can relate to some of this, but maybe there is something more basic going on. “Charity” is common to all cultures in all forms…and is certainly found in all religions. That we continue to want to give of ourselves, of our things and of our money might be more of a mark of our common humanity than the artifact of a particular national history.

  2. Laura 7 June, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    I’ve been following this blog for at least 4 months now. Your perspectives on US cultural perspectives towards aid are intriguing and personally, I find them rather accurate. However, I think it’d be more constructive if you also added ways that we can harness people’s desire to help in a more productive and efficient way. If people didn’t care to help then they would just throw away all the things they no longer want. But because they desire to be part of something larger than themselves they donate it or ship it off to places like Haiti or countries in Africa unaware of how UNhelpful it really can be. I know you may be thinking about one of the recent posts about how we perceive giving as our “right” and that giving becomes about the GIVER rather than the receiver-and yes, I’m still with you there; I disagree with the reality that it becomes about how to make the giver feel good. However, I really do think there are missed opportunities in not aiding unaware members of society about how they can contribute; we only prolong their ignorance. Thus, on your next post, could you perhaps offer some constructive suggestions for those who desire to give and to help and to be part of something larger than themselves?

  3. J. 7 June, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    @diddier – Heck, even some animals exhibit behavior that could fall into the category of “charity” (care for weaker members, share food, self-sacrifice…). I don’t think anyone’s arguing that one culture acts charitably and another not. The point is that different cultures think about and engage in the business of helping others in particular ways, and those particular ways always have historical roots peculiar to the culture under discussion.

    @Laura – I’ve been writing this blog for at least 3 years now and in that time I have seen a lot (A LOT) of discussion about what “ordinary citizens” can do to help. I have written my own thoughts on exactly that subject on this blog. And honestly, at this point I’m beginning to wonder how much more constructive suggesting is needed?

    See also more great posts than I can specifically recall from Blood & Milk and Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

    And in all that time, it has been my consistent observation that straight talk, clear and specific advice, and even ranting are just not getting through. Even after a massive online dogpile on the 1millionshirts thing, Jason went on to something far worse:

    I’ll write a post eventually along the lines of what you suggest (you’re not the first, and it’s already partially started). But for now it’s simple:

    1) Financially support a trusted organization. Write a check. Do a fundraiser. Whatever. Make the end product be you giving money to an organization that does this professionally.

    2) If you must get involved, get on a career track. Get the relevant education, work your way up the ranks in the humanitarian aid sector.

    3) Understand that, as in the medical field, there is very little role for non-professionals. If you’re not a nurse or doctor, stay out of the E.R.

    I don’t mean to be blunt, but I honestly don’t see it as much deeper than that.

  4. A Different Laura 7 June, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    @Laura – I do see your point, but J. and others spend *lots* of time talking about good ways to actually help (obvious one: have a garage sale, sell your junk, then send the money to Haiti) – just have a look through the archives or keep reading a while and they’ll pop up.

    @J. – I also wonder how peculiarly American this is. I’m British and most of what you say echoes true – only instead of the pilgrims and the depression it’s the depression and the war. This also applies to mending things – I often find myself spending hours attempting to sew up worn-out items of clothing that my African friends are telling me are beyond repair, just because it would be *wrong* to chuck them out.

    I think Didier also has a point – in medieval times, charity meant either giving money to the church or giving your old stuff to the poor – leaving an ingrained habit of passing down your old things to those worse off. Unfortunately, it’s rather less complicated when you’re talking about taking leftover food to a peasant living outside your manor than it is to talk about shipping your old shoes to Haiti.

    • J. 8 June, 2010 at 5:20 am #

      Different Laura – I’d agree that the idea that old things still have value is certainly not uniquely American. Others (Australian, Europeans…) have made similiar points over the past few hours on twitter. I hadn’t thought about the medieval times concept-of-charity connection, but agree there as well. I think it makes my point stronger and more universal, though, no? We’re (all) not just stuck in 1932… we’re stuck in 1532! (I think there may even be a “buying indulgences” connection here at some level.)

      As it happens, I’m an American person, writing as an insider about American culture. I once learned the hard way not to make the mistake of applying American cultural norms to other Western cultures… but… if the donated #SWEDOW faux leopard-skin over-the-calf Dr. Martens fit, go ahead and wear them!🙂

  5. placenta sandwich 11 June, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Hmm. Just last week, a friend of mine told me about some book she’d just read and how it mentioned third-world poor children making toy cars out of soda cans and having more ingenuity than American poor children…or something. I have to admit that strikes me as an attempt to make a too-big generalization, but we tentatively agreed that maybe the American taste for Having New Stuff might make you less likely to value reusing old stuff. But that seems to run directly contrary to the old-fashioned recycling values you write about here, and I do like your narrative.

    I suppose it’s that WE need and deserve new stuff, but it would still be wrong to throw away the old stuff when there are desperate and less-worthy people out there who can be happy with old stuff. (They’ll even make toy cars out of it!)

    • J. 12 June, 2010 at 7:02 am #

      American culture, like every other, has it’s own built-in paradoxes and internal contradictions. This would seem to be one of those. We change cell phones every six months without a second thought, but can’t quite shake the feeling that someone, somewhere should be able to get some use out of our old clothes. I think it’s important to acknowlege that we (and it’s not just Americans) have very complicated emotional relationships with our possessions! … emotional relationships that often cloud our judgement, and that lead us to see our stuff as more valuable or useful than it is in fact.

      In my opinion, the mistake we often make is to create an inappropriate link between “their” needs and our surplus, such that we want to donate our surplus in order to meet “their” needs.

      If we want to somehow help meet the needs of others, we should find ways to do so that are based on what their actual needs are. But let’s not confuse that with how we sort and sift through and ultimately dispose of our stuff.

  6. placenta sandwich 11 June, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Also, does this mean I’m a bad person if I kind of love those whiskey barrel sinks?

    • J. 12 June, 2010 at 7:06 am #

      😀 Since that barrel can no longer be used to make whiskey (per Kentucky law, apparently), I suppose it’s all good.

      But if I hear of anyone sending used whiskey-barrel sinks to Haiti (or some other disaster zone) as “aid”, a blogosphere smackdown will most definitely ensue…

      • placenta sandwich 12 June, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

        But They probably don’t even HAVE sinks! There are children in [country] who would LOVE to wash up in your rejected sink! Why don’t YOU come up with a better idea for giving Them sinks, then?

        (Alternately, They don’t need sinks because They made their own out of soda cans. That third-world ingenuity!) Oh, I’m getting myself confused.

  7. lhtorres 12 June, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    Okay, three points and I’ll back off:

    1. “Used stuff” is “junk.”

    2. That American cultural value, “over consumption”?

    3. “Stuff can be used for something other than what it was originally intended for.”

    First, it is incorrect to state that used stuff is junk. Used cars, used clothes, used tools – unless they’ve been abused and are being off-loaded by a huckster, there is much value to be derived in used good. What perhaps underlies your assertion is a tacit recognition that the quality of goods produced by the global economy today is poor, and as a result their isn’t much value to trickle down the value reuse value ladder, nor does the cost of these goods new warrant much benefit over the cost of them new.

    Of course, casting your views on “used stuff” and “junk” pays backhanded disservice to the millions of unorganized workers across the globe who squeeze a living out of the waste created by urban centers. “Ragpickers,” “catadores,” “baol baol” – there are many names for these folks who live and die off of the goods scavenged from dumps. Some even take those materials and create completely new, ingenious products that – and this is important – serve the urban poor.

    Despite years as a humanitarian aid worker, your cultural myopism – and underlying sense of superiority – shines through.

    This leads to the second point, which is overconsumption. The reason we’re able to support these bulging, orgiastic summertime sprees is because we consume to much. Of course, this is the program – its what modern life has been boiled down to: the pursuit of the good deal, regardless of utility. We talk about “industrial” and “non-industrialized” societies etc. We really need to be talking about pre- and post-consumer societies – those that have or have not allowed their primary cultural reference points (think iPhone or circumcision) become defined by productization.

    So the fact is, socially “beneficial” sites like Freecycle could not exist without the social pathology of over consumption. The fact that they do suggests there is a sliver of hope, some sanity gene among our population that says, “thrift is good.” Remember that meme, “carrying capacity”?

    Anyway, sounds like you’re in the DC area – when you have a moment, take the opportunity to visit the GSA surplus warehouses – as I write, my computer sits atop a dining table (really an office desk – your “junk”) that still bares a US Government Property sticker citing its home in 1960 – the US Peace Corps.

    Finally, your third point – stuff can be used for stuff other than what it was originally intended for. Look, to anyone living outside the United States, where privilege trumps sanity, this is a truism, a tautology. This isn’t some American idea coughed up from the lung of the Great Depression – its been around since bone was used to finish off the numbnuts.

    Any inventor or problem solver will tell you that appropriation and discovery go hand in hand. And of course, any entrepreneur in the developing world – whether they build charcoal furnaces from diesel filters or pillows from vinyl seating or any other ingenious appropriation – will tell you that finding a new use for old stuff is one of the more thrilling experiences one can have.

    And of course all this is codified into the wonderful of artists and other cultural creatives – domestic or otherwise – who take delight in finding that old door knob to turn into a coat hanger, the length of rope that can be turned into railing. Thank goodness for the garage-sale surfing, curbside sharking appriator who keeps – and in some cases increases – value circulating in our economy. Pah! on snobs who only see the treacle produced by todays cheap-oil plasticians and WalMart purveyors.

    • Lars 18 June, 2010 at 11:38 am #

      This was my reaction to this post, exactly. We (being from the US, myself) over-consume and are obsessed with new things. Referring to anything old as “junk” betrays the values that lead to garage sales and charity give-aways (as well as overfilling dumps, vast wastelands of poisonous electronic waste, et cetera).

      To reduce the consumption patterns in the US to the residual effect of a cultural event and then extend that to being the fundamental flaw in our attitude toward “development” is being as reductive as you accuse the 1millionshirts people of being. The interactions are complicated and systemic. If only it were people in need of a simple attitude adjustment.

      I’d argue that the problem with dumping your old stuff on people is that it often isn’t delivered to places that need or want it and even if it is, it isn’t provided in a way that’s useful. It’s not that it always has no use at all. My experience is that “junk” is very often delivered by the nebulous aid-train that has a stated goal of getting Container 1 from A to B and then hoping that something happens once it gets there . . . of course, without any monitoring or evaluation of any kind.

  8. Elizabethc 14 June, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    Well, I guess as a part of a generation that hopefully recycles more, I’d rather find some use for old clothing or shoes than have it wind up in a landfill somewhere. I mean, since when is “used” such a terrible moniker? I buy used clothes, used books; if I owned a car it would probably be used.
    Additionally, when I was in PAP a few weeks ago as part of a medical deployment, people were desperate for clothes and shoes… No matter how old, no matter how sad looking. Because I expected to get nasty and dirty I brought all my oldest and skankiest things: regardless, they were much coveted, (to my surprise). People ended up leaving the deployment with only the clothes on their backs.

    So while what you are saying in general makes sense, I think the point to most people is that new is preferable, but any is better than none. Which also seems to make sense.

  9. Randy LeGrant 14 June, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    I have a question. I understand “if you’re not a Dr. or a Nurse, stay out of the operating room.” What if you’re traveling and you’d like to stay an extra day and clean up a park or repair a few items on a school playground, or you’re studying abroad for a year and you want to help out some weekends at a soup kitchen or a local school in need of a tutor? You don’t need to be a “professional chef” or a union card carrying carpenter, right?

    So being new to this Blog, and I am very drawn to this Blog quite frankly, what do you call that? I’m very interested. The Tweets I’ve seen from you, and some of your posts I’ve read in the last 2 hours indicate there is a negative reaction to “voluntourism.” And that’s OK. I’m just wondering where activities like that fit in your thinking related to professionalism and aid.



    • J. 14 June, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

      I think there remains a basic misperception among the general population in developed countries that humanitarian aid is easy and inexpensive. There is an incorrect perception that anyone can do it. And there is an incorrect perception that when people appear to have nothing, anything we give them is good.

      You can spend all day thinking up hypothetical situations where maybe this activity or that isn’t really hurting anything. I cannot, offhand, think of a reason why working at a soup kitchen on weekends while studying abroad would be a bad thing. And you can use that kind of logic to justify all sorts of things that are not “bad” per se.

      But that is ultimately backward logic. That is a solution looking for a need that it can be used to help.

      Understand the need or the problem. Then plan the solution, based on the specifics of the need/problem.

      • Elizabeth 17 June, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

        I’m not sure why anyone would assume that any kind of non-profit work–international aid or otherwise–would be cheap and/or easy. Or that wanting to go and assist in some way means that you feel yourself to be just as useful as a professional aid worker. That in no way means everyone should go and assist, but I don’t think having a generous impulse also means that you are assuming that you are “just as good” as professionals. When you are promoting extremely black and white reasoning, I think it sets the stage for a lot of “what if”-ing, because there are exceptions to every rule. Of course, THEN the problem is that everyone wants to see themselves as an exception.

  10. Randy LeGrant 14 June, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Thank you for this reply. I really appreciate it. As a person who is heavily involved with voluntourism, your Blog is really giving me a lot to think about.

    I agree with you 100% in your first paragraph above, and I’ll take it one step further if you don’t mind. I was on radio with another voluntourism provider and she said the mission of her organization was to “wage peace.” I replied that I wasn’t aware that “peace” could be “waged” and it sounded to me like “waging peace” was another way of saying “colonialism.” It was that perception of “when people appear to have nothing, anything we give them is good” you mention above.

    I think, though, with the deepest of respect (I see you have been writing this Blog for several years and I have not been writing that long…) that I don’t think people wanting to be involved in their community (with the connotation of “involved” being physically involved and actually “doing” something) is a solution looking for a need. I admit that I might not be that deep.

    Working in the soup kitchen really isn’t much different than volunteering to string lights on the community Christmas tree on the town Green. I mean, if I volunteer to attend a Chamber of Commerce meeting and then go out and sell tickets to a Chamber Pancake Breakfast to involve more local businesses in the community…is that still a solution looking for a need?

    In my feeble mind, I most certainly can sit here and think up hypotheticals. You are right about that and I don’t want to bore anyone longer than I have already. I’m just missing the point and while much of what you write resonates with me, I’m not prepared to agree with the “backward logic you point out in your reply. You appear to be putting the solution first and I’m saying I’ll wake up in the morning and somewhere, there will be a real need.

    Lastly (I promise), if you propose that throwing volunteers at a “perceived” need isn’t solving anything, except maybe solving the need for the volunteer to think they are helping (or waging peace) without also planning the solution so the problem is S*O*L*V*E*D then you have a new convert.

    Again…many thanks for your response.


    • J. 14 June, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

      Randy – as I’ve written at different times on this blog and tweeted also many times, I’m 110% in favor of people volunteering, “giving back”, whatever you want to call it, in their own communities. That, in my opinion, is the very essence of sustainable community development. We are legitimate experts in our own communities where we are fluent in the language, where we understand the culture, and where we are direct stakeholders in both the process and outcome of change.

      Working to affect change in other communities in other countries, on the other hand, requires very specific kinds of expertise and so should be undertaken by professionals who are properly educated and have experience and know what they’re doing.

      All the best.

  11. lhtorres 14 June, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    The great irony here it seems to me is that a) “aid” workers are paid reasonably well, especially if one considers that i) their incomes are often free from U.S. income tax and ii) they don’t pay local expenses like housing, and iii) thats more than your average U.S. school teacher makes; and b) it is this “compensated” aid by professionals over the last 50 years that constitutes the great aid failure.

    And I’d also say that more important than “special skills” and “training” is a deep understanding of the local context into which those skills must be applied. The rotational nature of most aid posts kinds of works against this benefit in my opinion.

    Somewhere on this blog, a reader offered something to the effect of, “Americans are problem solvers” by nature. I like to agree, at least in ambition. We like to think we are. And sometimes, as in the case of Ray and Jeff of “Babylon by Bus” fame, sometimes you get drawn into something. Your skills – even *t-shirt* skills – actually transfer, and fill a gap. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

    In my opinion, the grousing about voluntourism etc is really about the spotlight. Through programs like Servas and AFSC – even the Red Cross – well-intentioned if sometimes under-qualified volunteers have been seeing the world and providing assistance for decades. They were doing it quietly. There were no Internets and digital cameras to document our every move. No Twitter or RSS feeds to cultivate followings and broadcast our deeds and opinions to the world. There were spokespersons and letters home, xeroxed newsletters to friends, family and churches alike.

    No one out there inviting or traveling today on behalf of most of these programs expects them to be more than ameliorative and gestures of good will. The problem in my opinion is that, in our ADD-24-hour-news-cycle-media-driven-culture, these modest efforts receive far more attention than they deserve, and come to *define* the aid experience. A celebrity-driven, all-in populist effort with a near-religion-like appeal. It far too dangerously narcissistic to achieve the modest ends in might have 20 years ago.

    (Note: There’s a massive gulf between urgent, short-term response to crises – natural and otherwise – and much of the criticism of long-term foreign aid. For example, conflating the response of getting t-shirts quickly to a devastated region with the years of second-hand dumping that has dried up local textiles is simply dishonest. What *that* conversation should really be about it relief coordination and logistics. And in such times, when every big aid organization wants their water truck inside first bearing their photogenic banner, that can be pretty tough).

  12. lhtorres 15 June, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    A few additional thoughts:

  13. D. Watson 30 June, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    I wonder if you would be interested in this article: “Gifts of Love” by Henry Eyring. He proposes a theory of good gift giving based on his experiences as a recipient. In part, the themes you address are shown there, but he also proposes how to take those factors and improve on them. If in fact our aid is a mess because we aren’t good gift recipients, it makes sense to ask how we as individuals can be better recipients.

    A few of the snippets describing a gift that made a difference to him when his mother died:

    What matters in what the giver does is what the receiver feels. … First, I knew that Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had felt what I was feeling and had been touched. … Second, I felt the gift was free. I knew Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had chosen freely to bring a gift. I knew they weren’t doing so to compel a response from us. The gift seemed, at least to me, to provide them with joy just by their giving it. … (3) they counted sacrifice a bargain. … My theory suggests that you have the power to make others great gift givers by what you notice. You could make any gift better by what you choose to see, and you could, by failing to notice, make any gift a failure.


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