I was invited to a wedding and it got me thinking – what to buy?
I reasoned that there are only four profound gifts you can give to a person: A gift of life, a gift of time, a gift of acknowledgment, and a gift of knowledge. These gifts are of equal value in status and interrelated as one may frequently be a precursor to another, or two can be combined and given seamlessly at the same time.
For these gifts to have their intended value, they must be given unconditionally, no compensation should be expected or received.
For me, a gift of life is defined as enabling someone to change the foreseeable prospect for the rest of their life in a material and irrevocable manner. It includes giving someone the mental freedom and emotional support to follow their heart and lead the life they choose for themselves. Having the knowledge that you are free to explore your capabilities and interests without critical judgement from your loved ones is to be given a chance to live the life you want, not the one you have. This does not mean day to day constraints can be ignored.
Apart from birth, perhaps the most urgent moment to give someone life is when they have chosen death. At this moment, it becomes impossible to give a gift of life. Rather, the person is now required to take the opportunity to live. The gift is to bring the persons mind back to a point where they can see living as a preferred alternative to dying. This requires the other three gifts be given simultaneously, in equal measure.
Time is our most precious possession. Each of us has a finite store of time. When the supply is done, we are done. Each minute of our lives occurs only once. To give your minute to someone else is to give them something of immense value. To give a gift of time is to give yourself to someone for free, without a “contract”. It means being there for another person; helping somebody else to achieve something they could not have done without your help, at the expense of your time. For example, helping someone move into a new house. Nobody likes picking up couches, moving shelves and carrying beds. This is different to going to a friend’s party. Going to a party is not giving yourself. Your friends can’t carry a couch by themselves, but they can party without you.
It is valid to “buy” someone time, to allow them to be in two places at once. Arranging and paying for the delivery of a home cooked meal frees up a young parent to attend classes after work rather than having to come home and cook dinner. The gift is not the dinner; it is giving the person time to go to class.
To acknowledge someone is to understand that person in time and space and to be in the present when you are talking to them. To have conscious compassion for how they got to be where they are. We are all products of our history. There is an African greeting that goes – “I see you”. What a wonderful way to greet someone. I see you. I see you as an individual. I acknowledge you and who you are. I see you.
Acknowledging a person’s real situation frees the mind from judgement and allows you to see the world through their eyes. A willingness to “walk in their shoes” for a few minutes, will quickly develop an understanding of their challenges.
I once read a post which mentioned that when young kids talk to you about the issues in their lives, take the time to discuss each one in turn. It is too easy to filter their issues into big or small issues and discuss only the big ones from your perspective. For the child, they are all big issues.
Removing judgement supports compassion and helps you understand when a person just needs space. Nobody likes a screaming baby on a flight. The person who hates it most is the mother. She is one hundred per cent aware of how loud and intrusive her child is. You can be sure that she is doing what she can to settle the child. Muttering under your breath is not going to help. She just needs you to be patient and let her do her thing with the baby.
I walked past a bus shelter in Mumbai one night. There were two filthy street kids trying to get on top of this shelter. I stopped and helped them up. In doing so I saw that there were half a dozen kids sleeping on the shelter. It was clear that these kids were sleeping there for safety. I wanted to give the two kids some money and my colleague stopped me and argued that they should get a job. That is an easy position to take, especially if you are on the way to the pub. In truth, by acknowledging their humanity, it was easy to see them as children, not old enough work. None of them wanted to be sleeping on the roof of a bus shelter and none of them wanted the life they had. At some point in their past, the wheel of fortune had turned against them. They did not ask for help, but they sure needed it. It is easy to be hard: compassion requires you to see the person – in three dimensions, in real time.
The fourth gift, is a gift of knowledge. It doesn’t matter which world you live in, knowledge is life. In the rural third world, learning how to drill for water can be life changing and in the business world, showing someone how to use Microsoft Office can have the same impact. For me, a true gift of knowledge is when two people sit down and share their life experiences. When a parent shows their children how to do routine tasks: bake a cake, replace a shirt button, paint the fence, drive a car, change a car tyre, speak a second language, or just understand the social consequences of war. Equally it is when a young person patiently walks an older person through the intricacies of modern technology.
These four gifts are seldom given in isolation and it is not always clear what the gift is, however that is of no consequence. What matters, is that by giving these gifts, you have made a material and consequential difference in somebody’s life.
The beauty of these four gifts is, that it does not matter if you give them to someone else, or if you give them to yourself.