The gift of experience

In December, we predictably find a lot of articles on gift giving.  What should we give?  To whom should we give?  Why should we give?  Do we give too much to some people and not enough to others?  One of my favorite articles of this type was written by Matthew Yglesias for Slate, and posted late enough in the season to give most people an opportunity to view their own pile of packages with remorse.  It evaluated the “deadweight loss” of much giving (the difference between what the giver paid and how much it is actually worth to the person who receives it,) and asserted that gift giving should be “redistributive.”  It also made a good case for spreading out our giving through the year (particularly through serendipitous giving), rather than doing the majority of it during a brief window at the end of the year.

Another suggestion he made was that it was better to give an experience than an object.  This distinction – between object and experience – seems clear at first.  As the tagline at the top of the browser puts it: “Scarves, no.  Surfing lessons, yes.”  But on Christmas day, I found the more helpful advice to be the author’s broader: “embrace risk.”  After all, while the dichotomy between scarves and surfing lessons is clear, other objects carry experience within them.  And the gift certificate for surfing lessons may go unused, which would transform the certificate into the most worthless of objects – a used piece of paper.

My idea of a good Christmas, from a “what cool stuff did I get?” perspective, hasn’t changed very much since I was a child.  No matter what else I unwrap, I want at least one thing I can play with right away – that afternoon.  I want at least one object that carries an (immediately accessible) experience within it.  As a child, that was easy – there were any number of toys that I could begin interacting with right away.  As a grown up, amidst the alluring springform pans (make a cheesecake!), the exciting lessons (learn a new skill!), the brand new clothing (look different!), there are few items that fit the demand, “entertain me now!”:  a new gadget, new music, or (most often) a new book.

There is, of course, danger in giving a book – even a book that the recipient has asked for.  If they do not like it, the best case scenario is that it is transformed back into an inert object, collecting dust on a shelf.  The gift also contains the possibility inherent in all gifts: the incredulous “why did s/he think I would want that?” Giving a book that you have not yet read could result in discovering later some embarrassing content that you did not realize was there.  Then again, it gives you a defense (“Sorry! I hadn’t read it!”) that you do not have if you have in fact read it.  The latter can reveal a rift that was unknown until the recipient discovered something disturbing on page 173 – something that the giver blissfully glossed over when reading the book months earlier.

But in the best case scenario, the book is read and enjoyed, and so becomes (no less than surfing lessons) an experience.  The hours spent with the book are hours spent re-categorizing ideas and events, re-evaluating previously held beliefs, re-visiting other, older experiences.  The book inspires, the book moves one to speech, exclaiming, “Yes!” and then reading passages aloud to others in the room.  The book creates a sense of community with the author and with others who have read the book – a reassurance that the reader is not alone, together with a new, clearer articulation of the inchoate scraps of thought swirling just beneath the surface of her/his conscious thought.

Of course, Christmas is not primarily about gift giving – or at least it ought not to be.  It is a celebration of the Word made flesh for our salvation – the Feast of the Incarnation – a day for remembering the one who came for the purpose of bringing us back home to God.  As such, I would build on the economist’s idea that we “get the most bang for our gift-giving buck” – and suggest that in all of our giving (but particularly on Christmas), our aim should be to reveal Christ through our giving – to be the vessels through which others are brought closer to God.  There could be no greater return on our investment.

I don’t know how much of this went into my brother’s thinking (who is, himself, a Christian who holds a degree in finance), and how much instead he was simply struck with, “I bet this is something that Sarah would like for her birthday!”  But his gift of William Abraham’s Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism was all that my childish “entertain me now!” impulse might lead me to desire.  At the same time, it has revealed Christ to me anew, at a time when I was especially needing to better articulate what it means that God speaks.  Especially in the face of my conviction, growing over the past ten years, that certain “reasonable” limits accepted in modern theology exposed the functional atheism of many who wished to continue to proclaim Christ for whatever reason.

A book IS an experience.  Thanks, James, for giving me Abraham’s book, instead of surfing lessons.  Though I wouldn’t be surprised if surfing lessons top Hannah’s list in about ten years.

I stand corrected…

A few days ago, when writing about lessons learned while skiing, I made passing reference to our culture’s deification of explorers and discoverers – of bold adventurers.  My guess as to how many people try such things and fail was off by more than an order of magnitude.  According to Alec Wilson, who recently wrote a book (The Ice Balloon) about a failed polar expedition, 751 died trying to reach the North Pole in the late 1800s.  Note the qualifiers.  This figure does not include individuals who died in the 1900s, nor individuals who died at any time trying to reach some other place, such as Mt Everest or the South Pole.  In case you were wondering, more than 200 have died trying to climb Everest.  Only 17 died trying to reach the South Pole between 1897 and 1922.  And I can find evidence of only one expedition resorting to cannibalism.

The question for me as a Christian is not whether “a live donkey is better than a dead horse,” as Shackleton put it (a man who nonetheless died on expedition – the second expedition after assuring his family that he had no desire for further exploring.)  I prefer to paraphrase my former CPE instructor, Rev. Marion Thullberry, who would repeatedly remind me that I needed to CHOOSE the hill upon which I was prepared to die.  Which she did mean metaphorically (there are many hills on which I have staked friendships and other relationships, upon which I have staked position, reputation, or career.)  But it applies literally as well.  What is worth dying for?

Explorers are those who will risk death in order to know the truth of a place first hand.  Or, to put it another way, they would rather die than not be the first to know a particular place in a particular way.  Upon reflection, my problem with these “men of great daring” is not that they think too big, but instead that they think too small.  Knowledge is worth dying for?  Knowledge of the Earth or of space or of the limits on one’s own body?  No, knowledge may be a means to an end, a useful thing to have on particular occasions.  But knowledge pales beside love.  As for knowledge, it will come to an end – but Love never ends.  For God is love.  And we are called to love one another as Christ loved us, which is to say that Christians are called to die on behalf of one another, for love of God and love of one another.  Which we can do without fear because we know that we have nothing to lose.  Not because our lives are without value, but because God loves us beyond any human understanding of value, and will not allow us to die forever.

But I still stand before the previous post about slowing down – because I trust that God does not wish for me to go up in flames for something as trivial as proving that I am smart or productive or possessing any other “virtue.”  As both Jesus and Paul warn us in the New Testament, we need to be more concerned about our reputation with God than our reputation with *anyone* else.  So long before I reach the precipice of martyrdom, I need to be asking myself, “What exactly am I witnessing to here?”  And if the answer is anything less than “The love of God as revealed in Jesus,” then it is time for me to change course.

Downhill skiing

My husband is an excellent ski instructor.  As a child, he went skiing for a week or so every year, starting in preschool – so by rights he should be a lousy instructor, because skiing is second nature to him.  But he is a keen observer – of people above all – and so he is very good at passing on the skills he has, even when passing them on requires taking a totally different approach than the one he himself used.

We went skiing this weekend for what was only the fourth time in my life (although arguably the first time, when I was 15, might more accurately be described as downhill careening.)  As when we went two years ago, my husband was shepherding our young daughter down the hill.  Which meant that I was only semi-supervised:  whenever he and Hannah were at a standstill, Brian would turn to me and give me a pointer and a half before needing to return his attention to Hannah, who within those 20 seconds or so had taken to happily chomping on well-travelled over snow.

As we headed from the plateau where the chair lift had deposited us to the slope, Brian asked me, “What do you need to know?”  “I think I’m in good shape right now,” I replied confidently.  About 20 meters downslope, all too aware that I was now going too fast for me to control, I threw myself down in the snow.  Brian looked back, not having seen what led to my now comically rag-doll evoking posture.  To the amusement of a pair of snowboarders, sitting together a few meters upslope, I shouted to him (I hope) good-naturedly, “I wish I had asked you how to stop!”

Once I was upright, I made my way the short way down to Brian and Hannah – where he made this suggestion:  “Go a little slower, a little easier than you are comfortable with.  That way, when you hit a spot where you speed up (as you inevitably will), you won’t be going faster than you can handle.”

And with that, I made it down the rest of the slope with a lot more enjoyment and less anxiety.  And I had a good time down the slope the next time, too – even though we took a more difficult initial approach.  At the end of that last run, I thanked Brian – that had been the advice I was most needing to hear to improve my skiing: not to push it.  The mountain would push me more than enough.

As I pulled into the parking lot at my daughter’s preschool yesterday, I was driving faster than I ought to have been – I was running late, having once again allowed one minute less than I would have needed to get there under perfect conditions.  And, as usual, the conditions were less than perfect.  As I came around the corner of an SUV parked at the end of a row of cars, I braked less than a car’s length from a little boy who had wandered away from the truck’s open door.  Brian’s advice came to me again at that moment, adjusted for the situation: “Allow a little more time than you need to.  That way, when delays come (as they inevitably will), you won’t be late and inattentive and almost knock down a preschooler.”

I spend so much of my life careening downhill.  I take on one more responsibility, I add one more skill, I invite one more person – I test my limits – right up to the edge of what I am comfortable with.  Without accounting for all of the things I cannot account for!  That is, I forget that the mountain will push me more than enough – that life throws all sorts of things at us that we were not counting on, and that we had not made time for in our schedule.

In our culture we celebrate (mostly) men (and some women, too) who pushed themselves to their limits and “achieved great things.”  That they cannibalized half their expedition team, even after learning from the earlier mistakes of six other people who died making the same attempt – that sort of thing is best brushed over.  What we consider to be “achievements” says a lot about what we expect of ourselves and each other as a culture.

As for me, I am learning that I am not cut out for careening.  I am not interested in seeing “how fast this baby can go” and losing myself on a forgotten hairpin curve.  Sure, there are emergencies that call for taking a chance on fast and edgy – life will push us more than enough.  But in the meantime I am going to stop trying to figure out how to prove how much I can do and how fast I can do it.  Instead of speeding up, what I need right now is to slow down.