On Giving And Getting In This And All Our Holy Seasons

I must confess my misgivings about much that surrounds Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other celebrations near the Winter Solstice. I certainly applaud and am rejuvenated by the spiritual preparation, gathering of family and friends, and joy in a season that extends from Thanksgiving through the New Year. Most of all, hope rises as our souls reflect on how powers far beyond our own mortal beings have made us not only beloved, but capable of holiness. As one song reminds us, “the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

But has the soul really “felt its worth?”  Or has it been overwhelmed by the commercialism that has increasingly dominated the season, from the first Black Friday offerings that begin on Thanksgiving evening? Is that what our prayers of thanks that day have come to? A curious order surrounds those  first days of this extended season:  first, Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, then Giving Tuesday—the last fairly new, and certainly last chronologically and monetarily in the pecking order. Getting comes before giving.

As wonderful as the outreach efforts of our churches and synagogues can be in this holy season, and our mosques and temples in their own seasons of hope, in some ways getting before giving still applies even there. No matter how rich our place of worship and its members, the collections throughout the year almost always go first and first and foremost to our internal needs, our club membership, and, then and only on occasion to needs other than our own. The first collection is for us, the second—if it occurs—for them. The poor box usually sits at the back of the church. Twice during my life, I offered two different churches a guarantee that money for their internal needs would not go wanting or decline for a couple of years if they would experiment with putting the needs of others on a par with our own. Good people, the members of the church councils couldn’t figure out how to reset priorities that much; they found few or no models to follow.

While our religions teach us that all seasons are holy, the data don’t support that recognition. No matter how much richer we become than previous generations, we in the U.S. don’t give away more than about 2 percent of our income; most other nations give even less. Similarly, when my co-authors and I look at data on giving by those with significant amounts of wealth, none—not even those with more than $100 million of wealth—gives away more than half of 1 percent of its wealth each year, though some do become more generous at time of death, when the hearse lacks a luggage rack.

Why such reluctance to give up some significant share of our wealth no matter how much we have?  I have become convinced that doing so threatens our options in life in ways that modest giving out of income usually does not. We can get a warm glow feeling by participating in giving rituals, as during the holiday season, but very few of those rituals ask us to change our basic way of living.

Since this column regularly centers on public policy, I can’t help but relate this imbalance between getting and giving to our political debates. World War II left in its aftermath appreciation for sacrifice, perhaps symbolized most by John Kennedy inaugural claim in 1961 to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” for the cause of liberty. Even by then, however, we had begun our long slide downward from the peak Marshall plan years, when we contributed about four percent of our national income for foreign aid, to a level today only about one-eighth that size, measured relative to our income.

More than a  Trumpian phenomenon, politics in the modern age has long centered on what we get. Candidates tell us that we represent suffering, oppressed, citizens who must be favored with more benefits or fewer taxes. Occasionally we might have to pay a bit more to get a lot more, but usually not even that will be required. Anyway, fortunately, money grows on fiscal trees or within fertile Federal Reserve vaults. Mainly, however, we don’t get enough because of, you know, them. Some claim our society’s problems derive from immigrants from “shithole countries” or billionaires in “wine caves,” and others who align themselves against us by joining with liberals or conservatives intent upon destroying our democracy. So, when bad things happen, “they,” not “we,” bear no responsibility for their happening, much less for fixing them.

As voters, we know that any politician who lays out any sense of shared responsibility for giving, not just getting, cannot get elected. Salvation for true believers in one political party or another lies simply in blaming those outside our self-righteous clan. The rest of us simply hold our noses and try to figure out which candidates might do the right thing despite their campaign rhetoric.

Still, life stirs beneath the frozen ground, and soon new growth offers wonders and opportunities never before seen. My prayer is that we and our neighbors become twice blest, as givers and receivers, as we find new ways to give and build on that new life in all our holy seasons to come.