Gift Giving as Community Building

Mark Chupp
December 8, 2020

In this holiday season of giving, we are too often obsessed with getting. Instead of just buying gifts, we start buying for ourselves. Consumerism is like eating empty calories of junk food, temporarily filling a void but not meeting our nutritional needs. Cruelly, consumerism also creates an appetite for more of the same. The more we buy, the more we want. We are bombarded with ads in our social media that supernaturally appeal just right to our tastes, making us want to buy things that we did not even know existed. Whether it’s for ourselves or for others, consuming begets consuming.

It does not have to be this way. We can rediscover what it means to give and receive. True giving is more than a quick purchase but a means for honoring someone and connecting to their essence. It starts by learning the value of the person and thinking of a gift that celebrates and enhances who they are. I know this because Sharon, my wife of many years, is one of the best gift givers I know. She pays attention throughout the year and notices what people like and need. She says the key is to stop and think about the person. What do they like? What is their style? What do they surround themselves with? It’s about being continuously mindful of them, who they are and what they love (and don’t love).

The process of giving is the best part. A gift is just a pretty box in the corner until it is exchanged. Seeing a person’s reaction is the best part of giving. Upon opening the gift, the receiver knows they matter because the gift matches who they are. It need not be expensive; a simple gift that shows thoughtfulness goes farther than extravagance can ever achieve.

True gift giving creates connection. For decades, Sharon and I could recite who gave us specific household items as wedding gifts. We married straight out of college with no money and in low-paying jobs. Our friends and family gave us thoughtful gifts that turned our house into a home. This was before the days of gift registries so people coordinated among themselves to make sure we had just what we needed without duplication. Although we did get 4 fondue pots, it was probably a reflection of people wanting to be with us, since it was a popular socializing activity at the time.

What would happen if we approached community work this way? Rather than relying on institutions to provide services to needy people, what if we recognized this as an opportunity for a massive gift exchange. What if we learned to know what people love, what they need to make them thrive and then drew on the gifts of others in the community to make people whole.

At the heart of this is recognizing that people are gifts. In Asset Based Community Development, we seek to discover the many gifts that already exist in community. We believe that people are not problems to solve but gifts to give. There is power in naming and affirming people’s gifts. The labeled person becomes an asset to their community as their identity shifts from being defined as poor or an addict to a talented poet or cook. Being affirmed helps people stand taller, engage with others, and contribute to the greater good.

We are more than the boxes people put us in. We are more than the rhetoric we espouse. By seeing the gifts in each person, we move beyond labels and boxes to see the other as essential to who we are collectively. Being needed reshapes the identity of the needy into an asset.

Building community has one common attribute to consumerism: it is self-reinforcing. Giving begets giving, creating virtuous cycles of caring, connecting, and compassion.

It is better to give than receive. The process of true giving makes us “present” to those around us and what matters to them, deepens our connections, and moves us beyond self-centeredness to community.