i love sending packages to kids at camp (or adults on extended vacations, at rehab, or, anywhere, really). this year, in my frantic race to get parcels mailed to four campers, i made some kind of crazy grave error and all four were returned to my own mailbox for an assortment of reasons. last year i was more successful when my nephew came to oregon for camp knowing no one and having never been to over night camp. wanting my packages to be interactive, i placed items in them that he could share with his cabin mates and new friends. ethan is people smart and loves sharing so i pictured him receiving these silly items and excitedly passing them out amongst his fellow campers. this fell at the beginning of the stick-on mustache craze and the package i was most tickled with had bubble gum and a ruler (for a bubble blowing competition) and two packages of stick-on mustaches. toward the end of the week i realized i was disappointed that i hadn’t spotted a single mustache in any of the photos that the camp staff had posted throughout the week. a day or so after he was home i asked him if he’d had fun passing them out. he looked at me incredulously but with complete sincerity. “i didn’t give them to anyone.” he said. surprised and confused i asked, “why not?” “because no one ever asked me for one” he said as though this was as obvious as the nose on his face.
to him this matter was crystal clear. since no one had expressed desire for a press-on mustache all week, why in the world would he offer them one? i, on the other hand, could only think, “why in the world would anyone think to ask you for a press-on mustache?” wehaven’t spoken of the incident since but i think about this interchange often as it highlights a dynamic i encounter nearly every day.
there are so many things that get in the way in regards to our giving. the most obvious of these is our imagining that what we have to offer is only meaningful/valuable/desired if it is asked for. since ethan’s own reaction to receiving mustaches (something he himself had never even thought of asking for) was one of ambivalence he didn’t perceive them as having value and never even thought of offering them to others. this happens all the time in small and subtle and huge and obvious ways. the only commodity someone has is time but they assume that what is most needed is money or a specific skill. a person is gifted at doing “behind the scenes” tasks yet feels certain that an “up front” person is what is needed so never offers up her “gift.” a community member makes a killer tuna casserole but assumes there is no one in the world that needs another one of those.
since no one is asking, deliberately, for what we have to offer we make no offer at all.
this holding back because we aren’t actively asked happens for a myriad of reasons. at the root of most of these is fear. fear of risking the offering. fear of looking foolish. fear of rejection. fear of not finding the PERFECT place to give our gift(s). fear of not having the “right” thing or gift or commodity and being judged or dismissed as a result.
with some distance i can see ethan’s perspective. he’s at a camp with a couple hundred 10-13 year old boys, a demographic not known for their relational graciousness, open mindedness, and creative and out of the box thinking within a group. on day four of camp, as his cabin mates are preparing for archery, fishing, adventuring of all kinds, and meal time “who can eat the most (fill in the least nutritious offering they can find at the table) today” competitions, ethan approaches them and asks, “might i interest you in a press-on mustache?” i can totally see this offering falling flat at best and being met with obvious “what the heck does that have to do with anything and why in the world would i want one of those???” and “you are one bizarre kid” confused responses at worst. it makes sense that he made no offers.
the longer i live the more i believe that life is richer when i actively seek out opportunities to contribute. this is true regardless of the size or nature of the contributions. offering what i have in order to benefit another/others engages me with my community, contributes to feelings of value, and pushes me outside of myself.
contributing/giving need not always require me to offer what i do not have already. in fact, with a bit of deliberate thought and some creativity, i can typically find ways to meaningfully offer that which i already have or that which is easy for me to give. sometimes all that is required is a bit more thought and investment of time and energy. a few examples to illuminate my point:
i always have a few items of clothing that need to be passed along. i keep a bag in my closet and force myself to fill it, over time, with things i wear that i realize i don’t feel great in. when it’s full, rather than simply dropping it at the nearest goodwill i have found two organizations that gift clothing to families in need. it takes an extra 10 minutes to get to these locations but the pay off, which is a result of using what i have (research skills to find the organizations, a few extra minutes a couple of times a year, and clothes i need to pass along), is beyond worth it.
referring back to ethan, as a people smart kid his best and easiest gift to give is his ability to interact with people. realizing this, my brother and sister in law got him involved with the red cross when he was very young. he would volunteer at blood drives by handing out cookies and juice and often loaning his blankie to individuals who had just given blood.
my friend jack is an amazing musician. for years, he and his family vacationed at the same beach town with a group of friends who spent their evenings gathering and playing music together at whatever home they had rented. having gotten to know the residents of this coastal town, jack and his family and friends came to greatly respect a local resident who hosted an elaborate hot dog stand every summer to fund his foundation. this organization (the mudd-nick foundation) helps children in the area by funding enriching experiences, college visits, and providing leadership opportunities and mentorship. jack and his family (sue, katy, and emma) joined with their friends and began playing music at the hot dog stand, hoping that it might increase traffic and funds for jim’s foundation. this has become a summer tradition and, this past summer, jim announced that the muddogs (the name of the always morphing group of talented musicians who set up each morning and play mind-blowingly good music on their make shift stage) had not only brought joy to the summer stand routine but had also raised almost $4000 in tips that have gone to the organization. in using what they have and offering it creatively, a community of talented musicians and some sound equipment, the buddecke’s make an important and valuable contribution. this particular offering gives not only to the foundation but also offers some of us who have chosen non-music based paths an opportunity to perform with a band in a supportive and fun setting (last week, while playing in an urban fountain in portland, i was approached by a family who identified me as the singer from the hot dog stand band...that was a very cool moment!). we all both give and get gifts in this scenario. (in fact, jim mudd, who spent his professional years in sales and now runs the foundation, steals the show in the best possible way every summer. you can see him do so in the video below.)
my sister-in-law’s mother is a talented quilter. realizing that the families of still born babies get only a tiny bit of time with their precious ones and that that time is forever all they have, janet makes blankets for these wee ones to be wrapped in while they are being held by their grieving parents. her gift is generous beyond words and grows from a skill and talent that is natural for her.
another sewing friend found a community of immigrants who had no access to clothing familiar and comfortable to them. she found a location willing to offer her weekly space and began teaching simple sewing classes. over time she has gathered donated sewing machines and fabric and has expanded to more lessons each week. she gets to teach a skill and offers others the opportunity to give what they have (machines and fabric) plus contribute greatly to a group who can increasingly support themselves.
there are thousands of examples of this kind of “offering what you have boldly, bravely, and creatively” giving. there are people who keep a flat of water bottles or box of power bars in their passenger seats to hand to people who need them. there are dedicated folks who send encouraging mail to prisoners, the troops, and kids in the foster care system. there are others who spend time each week reading with kids at their local schools or to residents at nearby retirement homes (some employers actually offer work time for such volunteer efforts). there are musicians who play music during meals at nursing homes and on hospital floors. their are folks who mow ailing neighbors’ lawns. one powerful human i know recently organized her church community in fully furnishing a home for and helping with the arrival of a refugee family of seven from syria. she has mad administrative and relational skills and offered them beautifully and generously.
so, ask yourself the following questions and find what is easy to give. push past the fear and offer your creatively considered and presented gift. the world may not realize that it needs your version of the press-on mustache so many never ask for it but, in reality, who couldn’t use exactly what you have to offer?
some questions to help you on your way:
what are the things you love to do or that are easy for you to do?
what do you have an excess of or easy access to? time? money? energy? possessions? a specific skill?
what do you see as trash/unnecessary that could actually be used by another? (classic examples of this are the “box tops for education” that get recycled but that could be saved and sent to a school aged child to bring in to their schools and the ronald mc donald house pop tab collection program which should absolutely be checked out by everyone. click here)
how might you enhance the gifts you already give by doing just a tiny bit more research or outreach? (e.g: rather than dropping donations at the easiest spot, seek out a shelter program that gives your donations to displaced families/individuals. or, to make a bigger impact, invite others to participate with you in your giving.)
what stops you from offering? how can you address this and move past the fear to making an effort to give? (i find that a huge issue here is the fact that we now have more places to do research than ever. in our efforts to find the perfect organization or opportunity we end up using valuable time we could have used to just give within. push yourself to do “good enough” research and to then just get on with the giving. truly. sometimes just doing the thing is better than continuing a search for the perfect thing.)
if you can’t think of how you might offer what you already have, who is a creative and observant person in your life who might be able to help you determine what gifts you have to offer and who might be open to receiving them?