By Donella Meadows
–December 21, 1989–
Every now and then come times in life when you have to change your give/take ratio — when you have to be more of a taker. Such a time has come to me.
I’m not good at taking (too many complicated sub-thoughts about my own worthiness). But it’s always useful to be forced to see life from a new angle — in this case to see the act of giving from the point of view of the receiver. I’m learning lessons about my own style of giving and the giving of others. I’m pondering what those lessons mean for the giving of organizations and of nations.
I’m beginning to distinguish at least four kinds of givers.
First, there are PROFESSIONAL GIVERS, medical people in my case, who are helping me, who are paid for it, who know what to do, and who just do it. You could say that’s not giving, it’s a commercial transaction, like the obligatory business-related Christmas gift. Like welfare workers handing out food stamps. Like policemen or firemen or people who truck in food for disaster relief.
Sometimes, though, some genuine warmth gets thrown into the transaction. It can be a moment of sympathetic understanding between a doctor and a patient. A word of honest appreciation along with the obligatory gift. An encouraging comment from the welfare worker. The giver need not necessarily be the source of the warmth; it could be the receiver, recognizing that professional givers are often under considerable stress themselves, or recognizing that we all take our turns as givers and takers in life.
Whatever the source of the spark, its presence uplifts the transaction from business to gift. The gift does not flow down from superior giver to lowly client, it flows on the level between two people acknowledging their common humanity.
There are also DISTANT GIVERS. They are the ones who call or write and say: I’m thinking of you, I care, call on me. I’m here if you need me, but you define the need. They brighten your life at this time of year with cheery Christmas cards. Mostly they stay out of your way. But you know that they would indeed help if needed. That’s a great gift, to feel supported by a web of friends standing by.
The opposite of the distant supporters are the ANXIOUS GIVERS. They are driven to help. They show up early and often, they are full of energy, they bustle about, they are wonderful. As a newly observant taker, however, I am coming to see that their primary attention is not on my needs, but on their own. My predicament has touched a fear in them, or a guilt, or a need to feel good about themselves, or a nervous urge to Do Something.
Anxious givers can come up with wildly inappropriate gifts — like the Christmas present that is exactly what they always wanted. Like blankets as disaster aid to tropical countries; or milk for famine areas in parts of the world where adults cannot digest milk; or insistently rebuilding houses after an earthquake, though the people are desperate to rebuild the church.
I love the anxious givers; I am so often one myself. I know that underneath their ego-trips there is real caring. As long as I have the strength, I can redirect their energy to good use. But if they are impervious to direction, or if they stay around too long, they drain me. They fill up my peace with their clutter. They spill their sorrows and fears onto me. At that point I am better off without them.
There are also TRUE GIVERS, bless their quiet souls. These are the people who come up with the gift you really want, because they have taken the trouble to know you. When you need them, they show up, without an agenda. They do nothing until they see what needs to be done. They know how to coax you (if, like me, you need coaxing) to articulate your real needs. They know that the most important need may just be for a touch, a hug, some laughter, some hope. They are willing to let their own vulnerabilities show and to be patient with yours. When they leave, though they may have done little tangible “helping,” you are stronger.
As I observe with gratitude and amusement all these givers in my life, I think of the organized givers — the foundations, corporations, welfare agencies, foreign aid offices, United Nations organizations. Can they light their professionalism with a spark of real human contact? Can they operate as a stand-by support network, whose very presence assures people that help will be at hand when needed? Can corporation or nations get their own anxious, selfish needs out of the way and become true givers?
Can a welfare office or foreign aid agency tune into the real material and nonmaterial needs of its recipients? Can it listen to the poorest of the poor? Can it be a giver not from a superior position to an inferior one, but on the level?
I see so many instances of anxious, selfish, harmful giving by organizations that I’m sometimes ready to say: call off institutional giving. True giving is something that only people can do. But organizations can summon so many more resources than individuals can. And I do know instances of true giving at the level of organization. In every case it is an individual who is the source of that giving, sometimes working with, sometimes against institutional practices and pressures.
It would help, I guess, if every institutional giver could spend some firmly enforced time on the receiving end of the services he or she provides. There’s a lot to be learned from being forced for awhile to be a taker.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989