The deeper meaning of giving is easily hidden in the hectic festive celebrations and frenzied gift buying that have become the habit of the Christmas season. Indeed, giving's essential function usually gets lost in the glitz and glitter of lights and commercialization that tries to brighten the darkest and coldest time of year — the time when we are most in need of the warmth and comfort of family and fellowship. So the tradition of giving invites an inquiry that goes beyond the simplicity of a thoughtless reflex.
At its core, giving is a means of uniting all the members of our human community through a process of bonding so that we may live together in peace, harmony and security. Giving, in all its forms, is the gesture that attempts to equalize the differences that separate the rich from the poor and the privileged from the disadvantaged. It is inspired by an innate urge to dissolve the barriers that make people feel distant from each other. Because we are inherently social beings from our first breath to our last, giving is a statement of openness and trust that affirms we are all similar in our humanity and mortality.
Consider Good King Wenceslas. Why is the “Good King” struggling through the deep snow and “bitter weather” with his faithful page? Because he has spied a “yonder peasant” gathering “winter fuel” in the cruel frost of winter. He commands that meat and wine and pine logs be brought so that “Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.” At the risk of his own safety, he trudges through the brutally cold night to find the hut by the edge of the forest where the peasant lives. His gesture of generosity is an heroic effort to dissolve the distinction between peasant and monarch so that they can be united by their common humanity. His giving affirms that the difference between them is merely superficial convention.
Or consider Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserable old miser who is transformed in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is alienated from his community by avarice. He is alone and joyless, disconnected from the company of others and infected with the cynicism of a perpetually dismissive “Bah, humbug”. It is his redemptive awareness of others through the illuminating experience of three visions that reconnects him to people. His generosity is a symbol of the newfound commonality he has found with Tiny Tim, the whole Cratchit family and everyone he meets on his London street. They are all linked by a shared struggle, frailty, heroism and mortality. This connection, symbolized by giving, is Scrooge's salvation.
Giving is the mechanism that encapsulates connection. It explains why the three “Magi” brought gifts to the manger to welcome Christianity's divine child to the family of humanity. And it explains why Christmas is a time when communal dinners are held for the homeless and destitute, when foodbanks bulge with special festive treats for the poor, when people organize to collect and refurbish toys for needy children. The urge to give and equalize and bond is deep in the human psyche — even in the psyche of many animals.
Experiments with groups of monkeys, porpoises, dogs and other social animals have shown that this bond of equality is intrinsic in them all. It is most manifest in their inherent sense of fairness. Teach them all to perform some task for a reward and they will dutifully and contentedly play the game. But reward one animal excessively for completing the same task and the result is pandemonium. The animals receiving the lesser reward will sulk, throw tantrums, become aggressive, and otherwise protest. Their sense of fairness has been violated by unequal treatment. Their innate inclination is to exist in a state of equality. Giving for humans is the process that attempts to engender this comfortable social relationship.
Professor Richard Wilkinson is a retired British epidemiologist who hypothesized a relationship between poverty and social problems, such as “mental illness, crime and infant mortality” (YesMagazine.org, March 4/10). So he expected his studies would find a close link between income and death rates. But he couldn't find one. What he did find was a high correlation between income inequality and a wide variety of social problems. Cultures with high income disparities were inclined to have elevated dysfunctions in at least eleven areas: physical and mental health, education, drug abuse, obesity, violence, child well-being, imprisonment, social mobility, teenage pregnancies and trust. “In less equal societies,” he notes, “we find perhaps eight times the number of teenage births per capita, ten times the homicide rate, three times the rate of mental illness. We know from the findings that it's the status divisions themselves that create the problems.”
Professor Wilkinson's study merely confirms what people have always known and attempted to address. In Wilkinson words, “Inequality has psychosocial effects — the impact of living with anxiety about our feelings of superiority or inferiority. If you grow up in an unequal society, your actual experience of human relationships is different. Your idea of human nature changes.” For instance, in modern societies where people are more equal, about 66 percent of them “feel they can trust others in general”, whereas in circumstances where people are more unequal, the level of trust may drop to as low as 15 percent (Ibid.).
In “psychosocial” terms, giving is a means of reducing inequality, of re-establishing the trust that binds people together in communities of co-operation and accord. People, of course, expect and respect that they are different from each other. Psychosocial forces allow for this. But difference that trespass certain tolerable limits of unfairness are another matter. Unfair disparities are basically unhealthy and corrosive to social cohesion. So giving is a method of healing the tension that separates humans from the closeness they need to survive and flourish — a lesson taught yearly by the Christmas stories of the Magi, Scrooge and Good King Wenceslas.