One teenager’s challenge to her family to give more resulted in a complete life change for them all. In the book The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, the Atlanta father-daughter team of Kevin and Hannah Salwen describe how, in 2006, they had seen a homeless man begging for food by the side of the road. “Dad, if that man had a less nice car”—Hannah pointed at a black Mercedes coupe—“that man there could have a meal.” The light changed and they drove home, but the idealistic teen did not let go of the image.
“When we got home, I talked to my parents about it,” remembers Hannah. “They were explaining to me, ‘We’re really generous at the end of the year, and we give a lot.’ But I was feeling like it was quite lame. It sounded pathetic compared to how much we had.”
Indeed it was, admits Kevin. “I think you could have easily looked at our lives and said the most important relationships we had were with our house and with our other stuff. And when Hannah brought up her anger over what she had seen in the car, she challenged us to be a family to make a difference in the world.”
Kevin, Hannah, wife Joan and younger brother Joseph took up the gauntlet and spent the following year researching and discussing worthy causes. Then they sold their luxurious home and pledged $800,000—half the proceeds of the sale—to sponsor food, health, microfinancing and other programs for 40 villages in Ghana, through the New York City-based Hunger Project.
Now, with their book, they travel around encouraging people to examine where in their lives they might be able to “pick a half,” as Hannah says—to take half of one’s TV-watching time and give it away by volunteering, for example. Interestingly, the Salwens vow that they are the biggest beneficiaries of their giving, which has deepened both their roots in community and their closeness.
“The American dream always seems to be about stuff,” says Kevin. “And what we should be dreaming about is, Can we really be happy? I certainly feel in my gut that the only thing that makes people happy is a deep community.” Adds Hannah, “The main thing I’ve experienced is the change within my family and how much I can share with them and how comfortable with them I am now.”
The Salwens could be poster children for “Mental Capital and Wellbeing,” a 2008 report issued by Foresight, a British government think tank. In the report, “giving to neighbors and communities” was cited as one of the five critical elements of well-being and mental illness prevention. Tellingly, the word “community” comes from the Latin communis, which means “bound together”—and that word, in turn, has as part of its root the word munus, meaning “gift.” So giving is glue that binds us as a group, creating a system of exchange and acknowledging our interdependence as humans.
My own community of Taos, a small rural town in New Mexico, has been a remarkable example of how giving and receiving weave a fabric of interdependence that benefits all. Potlucks, fundraisers and volunteering abound; when I’m in need of any sort of help, I’ll send out an email and get multiple responses.
One day my friend Pat McCabe, a poet and activist of Native American Diné ancestry, called to invite me to a Thanksgiving dinner—in February. When I arrived at her house, I discovered that it was Pat’s birthday, and she had laid out an opulent feast for two dozen friends. Before we dug in, she had us stand in a circle, and she blessed the food and thanked us as a community for having made a difference in her life in the past year. The feeling of connection as we stood holding hands was palpable, strong and sweet.
Later, she explained that “the giveaway” is vital in many Native American traditions. “It’s about repaying the sacred debts that were fulfilled by others for me,” she said, “the moms I know helping each other out to raise our kids, the spiritual community that calls on me to do ceremony and strengthens me because it reminds me of who I am. All of these can be happily repaid because they deepen the sense of family. It’s also a way of recognizing that I lead an incredibly blessed life, and I feel the need to keep this river of goodness moving and flowing.” This giveaway not only fortified our ties as members of her community, it also fed and strengthened her spirit.
Author Genevieve Vaughan believes giving is so powerful that a giving paradigm could save the world. In books like Homo Donans and For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, Vaughan has proposed a shift from the exchange system of economics—capitalism—to a gift-giving economy. Exchange is ego-centered, competition-based and profits from the gifts of others, whereas gift giving is other-oriented, non-hierarchical and noncompetitive.
“The exchange system creates scarcity for many,” Vaughan says. “Precapitalist economies had a much better way of living. Many of the indigenous societies were and are gift-giving societies, based on mothering values, egalitarian and non-hierarchical.” She cites the Iroquois, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, the Sami of northern Scandinavia and the KhoSan of southern Africa as examples of societies grounded in gift-giving economies. In contemporary Western society, such practices as community gardens, freeware, Creative Commons licensing, couch surfing and bartering are all forms of gift-giving economics.
Many gift-giving economies are matriarchal, says Vaughn, which makes sense because the mothering impulse represents “unilateral gift giving without expectation of exchange or return. Humans are all formed according to gift giving. As mothered children, we all have the gift paradigm deep within us.”
Vaughan believes that in mainstream Western culture, the natural gift-giving impulse has been educated out of people—particularly out of male children—and that “if we stopped educating our boys not to be like their gift-giving mothers, we could recreate humanity on the basis of the gift paradigm. Direct gift giving is the human way of doing things. We are in alignment with our humanity when we participate in gift-giving economics.”
Back on the street in Venice, I open my hands to receive the necklace from the homeless man. My heart is full of astonished tenderness at this gift he has given me back—not only the plastic jewels, but the honor of being seen as a queen.
I feel humbled. I thank him and ask his name. “My mother named me Michael,” he tells me. “Like the Archangel. That’s how you can remember me. Michael the Archangel.” I walk to my car, get inside and burst into tears. That simple act of giving him a little money for food opened such a huge, unexpected door between our hearts. I feel unspeakably grateful. As a result of my giving, I have indeed been touched by an angel.
Diana Rico, who finds the act of giving almost as satisfying as eating chocolate, wrote about the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers in the Jan./Feb. 2010 issue.