Tag Archives: clarity

May, Strength

The most compelling lesson that came out of April’s practice was discovering the relationship between willingness and flexibility, and this has got me thinking about strength.

Intention:
In many ways, I’m simply trying to figure out what strength means to me. The more time I spend considering it, the more I realize how confused I am about this quality, and that I am also afraid of it. The conventional notions of strength that permeate our culture like might, dominance, and control are not what I’m going for. My ideas of strength are much more about holding a place, holding a relationship, holding shelter, than about using force to propagate anything onto someone else. I associate strength with quietness and nobility, independence and endurance.

My vague sense of strength is hard to articulate, in part, because it is full of contradictions. It is force held in dynamic suspension, so as to be constantly present, adjusting and determined without being aggressive. Strength has an element of conviction without needing anyone else to agree. It is controlled determination, used to enact one’s will, without controlling others. It is free from malice or fear. It does not intend to hurt others, but accepts that as a consequence. It’s hard to articulate what it feels like, beyond a sense of deep sureness, or knowing, that I will act from a particular intention. Strength defies regular form. It seems capable of taking on nearly every other quality – stillness, action, acceptance, aggression, pushing, following, waiting – and seems to be the ineffable force that underpins everything else, which all along I have been thinking of as love. Hmmmm.

My intention this month is very modest – it is simply to advance my knowledge, however small, towards becoming more skillful in understanding and using strength. And also to relax some of my fear about it. I have a growing sense that I am circumferencing my own power. That I’m ambling around and around, chattering on about every other thing I might set my attention to, and wondering from time to time, why I feel so ineffective and unfocused. It’s starting to feel naive. Timidity dressed up as amiability. Hurt masquerading as ditziness.

I pray for strength all the time, it’s part of my ritualistic closing at the end of every sit. So what a surprise to discover that I am unsure of what I am asking for, despite the fact I’m convinced that it’s critical for my success.

May Activities:

  • Strong determination sits, as my formal practice this month. I find this style of sit is so helpful for exploring the relationship between intensity and focus, and in particular, how to use those in opposition to each other to achieve a particular effect. When sitting in a great degree of discomfort, the intensity of that pain becomes tolerable by strongly focusing on something else. Until recently, this felt too much like denial for me to practice, but I’ve shifted. Acceptance does not have to mean embrace; there’s a subtly in the relationship between acceptance and attention that, I think, I’m starting to understand.
  • Weight training, three times per week. I really like having a body-based activity each month – I learn something from my body whenever I listen to it. I also like the literal simplicity of this task.
  • Check email twice a day, and if needed dedicate a block of time for writing and responding. This task is about exploring the discipline of abstinence. I get very little email, and even less that I care about, but I still check it a lot. I do this as a diversion from discomfort, usually boredom or irritation with my children, but it frequently turns into an unsatisfying and time wasting activity. I suspect I feel diffuse because I am careless with my attention, and this is intended to see if tightening that up makes a difference.
  • Since I am so confused about strength, spend six hours a week seeking information. This task is about exploring the discipline of activity. Six hours may not sound like a lot, but it is a huge portion of the limited time I have for quiet, focused activity, when I am able to concentrate without being interrupted.
  • Use the Heart Card again this month. I get angry, I use my strength carelessly. Nobody is better at creating this dynamic than my children. Sometimes life just demands certain practice.

Expectations:
I expect that I’ll (mostly) be able to meet myself where I’m at and actually enjoy the discovery process this month. There’s a certain amount of freedom in admitting my ignorance and being able to go forward without the judgment that accompanies presumption. That being the case, I don’t have a lot of expectations for this month – that’s how limited I feel in this space, I can’t even imagine an outcome.

What do I Value:
I value the ability to wield strength wisely. I value knowing how to access and regulate strength in skillful response to dynamic conditions.

What do I Want:
I want to uncouple my understanding of strength from my association of it with control and manipulation. So much of my aversion (or attraction for that matter) to strength is based on a muddied emotional reaction that I don’t understand very well. I want to trade this pattern for a healthy fear of strength, one that’s based on a clear and respectful understanding of the given force, like knowing not to wander around a golf course in a thunderstorm. I want to teach my children that strength is not just about dominating through force. They see plenty of this in our media, and also in how they are generally treated by adults, even ones like me, who love them, but aren’t more skillful.

Where is the Resistance?
Given the amount of confusion I have, I expect fear to be my biggest barrier. Naming it helps, accepting it helps open it up. My hesitation to understand and embrace my own strength is tied up in a sense of carefulness, of not wanting to hurt people. But there’s a certain dishonesty in that, or maybe more fairly, just an imbalance. Passivity born from denial of strength is weakness, not charity. I have turned my other cheek many more times out of fear, as a hedged sacrifice, than out of generosity for, and from, my own spirit.

What am I Willing to do?
(May 14) In my original post, I completely forgot to answer this question. It strikes me as a significant omission, especially since willingness was so central to the selection of this value in the first place. I have been thinking about this since Monday morning, when I realized I’d forgotten, and sitting down to write, I am continuing to struggle to articulate my willingness to engage in this practice. There is a huge amount vague, internal resistance, that does not want to do this practice. When I ask myself this question and listen for a response, I get these bursts of mental talk, that literally says things like: Nothing, I am not willing to do anything. I hate this practice, and I don’t want to do it.

So, I have hit a wall, it seems. A thick, tall, resistant wall that has an enormous amount of strength and determination to be both obstructive and influential. The irony is gorgeous, and funny, and humbling. So, under the circumstances, here is what I am willing to do: I am willing to listen to this teacher. This master of nearly transparent recalcitrance, and see what I might learn about strength. A new task for the month: Ask this question every day, and listen.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained:
Responsibility – I have, not surprisingly, very mixed feelings about this. It is a serious thing to take responsibility for one’s strength and power – to know it intimately and use it with care, purpose and intelligence. Strangely, avoiding my strength doesn’t feel frighteningly irresponsible, though logically it follows that it should. Perhaps it is my nature to be wary of responsibility, perhaps it is only my pattern. Or more likely, I am just as confused about responsibility as I am about strength.

Power – Strength and confidence seem closely related to me, both critical components in the alchemy of faith. I ache for more confidence in my choices, more comfort in my presence, and more energy in my hours. I’m guessing this difficulty is caused, at least in part, by concentrating so hard on ignoring the strength that I have.

Freedom – This, of course, is the upside of responsibility. The integrity of form that in honoring all the forces that combine to make the Way, unlocks openness by virtue of being whole. When everything is aligned, there is nothing left to do but exist.

Lost:
Safety – In avoiding my own strength, I inevitably seek and find it other places. In people. In circumstances. It’s hard to emerge from this protection feeling unprepared, but it is of course impossible to really grow without doing so. I don’t know how to be vulnerable and safe. I don’t know how to be protected and open. I am so scared to tread into this space.

Naivete – I mean this in the kindest way this word can be used. I mean the sweet, innocent simplicity of not knowing. It is hard, painful, to learn about the fuller spectrum of life. I don’t know exactly what I’ll discover about strength, but I suspect it will inevitably involve the mourning of innocence. It may be a correct and natural part of the maturation process, but it is not without sadness, and the finality that comes with changing in a way that is impossible to revert. I don’t know why this idea makes me so sad, but it does. Perhaps it is the grief that comes in accepting that some deaths are really permanent. That sweetness, that trusting wonder is beautiful, and to be cherished. Even when it is time for it to pass, I still feel a loss of loveliness in the world.

Still Listening

The reflection piece for my March practice of Listening is taking a long time. I keep working on it, and working on it, and it’s not right yet. It doesn’t feel right yet – something is amiss, but I can’t tell what. I’m pretty sure that I’m angry, and that’s making it hard to find and work out the imbalance. If anything, the lesson learned this month has been to accept that sometimes, listening honorably requires allowing things to be done in time rather than on time.

Source Code

Numbers and symbols

I am spiraling down, down, down into the ascension.

I am disoriented. I have merged with nothing. I am standing inside the source and I can’t understand anything. I never pack right for this trip, I always forget to bring love, and I can’t interpret the code.

My heart is saturated, heavy, wet. The smallest movements break the fine tension, and this grief seeps into my blood. When I bend, my head throbs and my eyes leak. This sickness, it’s an injury in my blood, cycling, cycling, cycling, as my heart sucks and rasps and pushes. It touches every cell, and washes through my bones, and my bones moan.

I feel – acutely – the absence of everything I am supposed to feel, want to feel, remember feeling. I feel the absence of the life I wish so desperately to live in, as it happens around me. Feeling my definition through the negative space rather than a form I know as my own is so painful, so disorienting that I breathe as little as possible, so that I might become numb and stop feeling everything I am not experiencing. I am transparent to my own existence, a hollow steward of the next best guess. I can no longer find consciousness inside of me – it is a thin haze, vague. I am vague. I am listening for God but I have stopped being the channel – I am inside the code and I can’t understand it. I am terrified.

I did not pack right for this trip. I brought stacks of what I know, but I forgot to bring love. Nothing makes sense.

I am resting in the eye of the great dark forces that are the infinite source of space; I am witnessing destruction. I am much too delicate for God’s work. This pain is the pain of feeling the space between everything. Of flesh rent by the dark gravity of nothing. I cannot bear the pressure and the loneliness of being immaterial. I gape, and bow and weep at the feet of the Spacemaker, so that I may remember the great service I am spared. So that I may remember the privilege of love, and what it entails.

Culture Tax

A few things came up over and over, during the Clarity exercise.

– Physical objects are vessels that bear abstraction
– Physical objects obscure complexity
– Physical objects last much longer than the states they were acquired to satisfy
– We approach a culture of abundance with a scarcity mindset

One of the consequences of global culture is the abstraction from the most elemental parts of our life, like our food and other energy sources. For many of us (in the West at least) this abstraction has also led to tremendous abundance. Mechanization, technology, and the extreme fungibility power of a shared monetary system, have created a world where, with relative ease, time can be turned into almost any object or service. We spend some time doing something someone else values, we’re given some money for our effort, and then swap that money for a dazzling array of goods and services in a marketplace that is more or less always available. Yet, if I am any indication, we are still largely engaged with this monumental change in our living circumstances from a scarcity perspective.

The Abundance Trap
Physical goods represent past investment and future opportunity, and getting rid of them conjures up the fear of future regret. Thoughts like, but it works fine, or I might need it later and then I’ll have to replace what I already had, emerged over and over as I sorted through the things in my home. Our physical objects become a tangible stand-in for cognitive and emotional security, and the vessels that bear our memories. It is as though our abstract models for synthesizing reality must be anchored in, and buttressed by, the material. We instantiate what we love, the things that matter, in, well, matter. It is an astonishingly literal and straight forward way to surround ourselves with our world view and personal narrative. I actually find it oddly charming, almost childlike for it’s simplicity. But the sweetness in it also seems naive in a modern context of abundance. My fear of being wasteful, led me to actually being wasteful, by accumulating, and keeping, more than I can use.

The reality of my situation is closer to this: I am not going to start cycling anytime soon, and those padded bike shorts I still have from when I was spinning six years ago, can go. And if I do take up biking again, those shorts probably won’t fit anymore, or the spandex will be too deteriorated anyway. AND, it is also insanely easy for me to either purchase new ones, or with a little more effort, get them very cheap or free from a thrift store or freecycle.org. But still, I think, well, it’s always possible… Doubt, particularly the positive doubt that allows our future self redeem to the choices and aspirations of our past self, gives staying power to physical objects that are currently irrelevant. With shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars we have turned the viewing of other’s excess into a commercially viable sport predicated on sanctimony and excitement. And like so much of our media, it reflects what we cherish and revile, what we ourselves do at a scale small enough, that we only dare explore it through the magnified reflection of some one else, safely distant from our actual lives.

Food, my most direct and important energy source, is freighted with complexity and abstraction. What is crucially intimate, is also frighteningly foreign; this is the paradox of our time. I know almost nothing about where my food comes from, who makes it, and whether or not it will be good to eat after a seemingly arbitrary date, stamped on the packaging, has passed. I am being duped into unnecessary waste (and more purchasing) by the manufacturer, or is it actually not safe to eat, or safe, but lousy tasting? I can’t believe how little I really know about my food. Why would dry grains that once served as currency, for heaven’s sake, expire? I store it to the point of waste because it’s easier than using it. I buy Japanese soba noodles to try in a recipe and then let the rest sit in the cabinet for years, because they don’t quite fit with what I normally eat. Globalization and accessibility have made it easy for me to trifle in experiences outside my dominant culture, but the steel gossamer of my own native patterns makes it difficult to see those liaisons through to an honorable conclusion. My life is littered with the wreckage of my love affair with information – the noodles I bought to make a recipe in Gourmet, have outlasted the publication!

We buy in bulk at box stores for convenience and value, but this also obscures our consumption rate. It feels like we use less, and spend less because we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable exchanges of giving away our time and money every time we want another roll of paper towels – and the side effect of that is we don’t live in close contact with the true cost of using them at the rate we do.

The abstract nature of the abundance further divorces us from the relationship between what we do with our time, and how we come to have the trappings around us. I might talk and write about an idea that someone else builds, and someone else buys, and through the magical power of commerce and other people’s labor, have a house full of things I don’t maintain, and food whose origin is a mystery. I have more of everything, but I am distracted and lonely, because I have so little relationship to myriad things that surround me. I am constantly fighting my eagerness to find it in the next shiny object, or tantalizing idea, but I inevitably begin the cycle again, blindly, with the same model that landed me here in the first place. The abundance around me – in my home, in my media, in my schedule – tugs and taps and winks, a million microns of attentional gravity, pulling me into a perpetual now of nothing.

Learned Instinct
As a species, we are terribly impoverished in the realm of instinct. We’re born knowing how to eat, cry and clutch, and nearly everything else has to be learned. When we think of “trusting our instincts” it almost always applies to a personal, subjective experience, and does little to reliably contribute a predictable offering into the world around us, like say a spider’s web, or a bird song. But instinct is awfully useful, and so we do our best to approximate it through social organization: culture is the collective instinct of any given population – a family, a town, a nation, a gender…

Culture is learned, and preserved, through deep repetition and social reinforcement, which is why it is so hard to change – it requires collective practice against the already existing (usually unconscious) pattern. It is often vaguely linked to safety – physical (don’t eat this) or social (don’t say that) – and strongly linked to identity (we do, or don’t do, X). And because it’s also linked to the power structures of any given system, there are painful consequences for dissent, ranging from time-outs to execution. The immediate social and psychological benefits of belonging are so powerful that being counter cultural seems not only like a lot of work, but also dangerous to one’s wellness and security. As the saying goes: One doesn’t sip cyanide just to see what it tastes like.

The dominant population in America is one who has exchanged the cultural identity of their linage for a personal identity of hope. The origin stories of most non-Native Americans start with leaving the culture of their heritage, either willingly (often because things were so bad abandonment was the best option), or by force (because they were dragged away in chains). The American mythos is that of the pain/hope cycle: that merciless combination that drives astounding feats of achievement. Americans, by and large, are gambling on the exchange of a less-than ideal now, for a perpetually better future. This has been an extremely successful model for generating vast amounts of wealth, technological advances, and scientific discoveries, but we’ve mortgaged our humanity along the way. The chafing from our nobly-intentioned sacrifice further drives us to abandon the status quo just as quickly as we can identify it, in the hope that the arrival of the next future will make us happier right now.

Even when we can see our unhappiness, the prospect of trying to step out of this cycle is terrifying. For starters, it produces so much convenience and prosperity; the abundance we’ve created allows for a near frictionless (and presumably infinite) feathering our nests with goods and services that subtly reinforce this pattern. But stickier still is the emotional attachment we have to belonging. As humans, we long to be part of a narrative that is broader and longer than our own. It is very hard to leave the only home you’ve ever know, even when you don’t want to stay there.

The cycle times of these cultural narratives run at a much slower pace than the cycles of our markets. Our stories of sacrifice and improvement enjoy the dual benefits of an early introduction and constant repetition in the way they’re (often silently) enacted around us. Against this behavioral backdrop, quarterly earnings capture our attention over and over, leaving little room to consider the less urgent, but deeply pervasive, patterns that drive most of what we do. We eat the values of the market, and subsequently grow the culture that perpetuates them. If you’re at least third-generation American, you’ve probably got a family story about the Great Depression, and you’ve probably got some personal values that relate to behavior associated with economic hardship, and you are likely enacting those values in a way that also supports the perpetuation of personal abundance. For those of us who have been eclipsed by the abundance we’ve helped create, I offer that it is time to stop refining – and start redefining – the model that creates it. Rather than continuing to look at everything through the same lens, we must consider the lens itself.

America is a culture exquisitely primed to consume connective and information-pushing technologies that feed our cultural instinct for more. It’s no surprise that we have invented so many of them – it’s what we value. And this, in and of itself, might not be so problematic if it were not for the clutter of objects that accompany our frenetic pace of acquisition. In material form, these objects are crippling and overwhelming our environment, and in abstract form they are crippling and overwhelming our human spirits. The impact of object proliferation is finally reaching an impact point painful enough to contend with the painful risks of culture change. Abandoning our cultural narrative of acquisition for a better one would, in fact, be a very American thing to do.

So what, then?
The good news is that if our instincts are learned, they are also mutable. How do we learn in a culture of abundance, to accept the abundance, and shift our attention elsewhere in order to solve more pressing problems, including the problems of abundance? What will we loose by doing this? How do we even think clearly in the din of our economic engine?

One possibility is that our excess will actually allow more of us to live well, by living more simply – but we must choose to do so. In a world where we no longer need to hedge against basic needs that aren’t secure, and put our energy into the attainment of physical goods, we have to retrain ourselves step off the gas, and practice living in the (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy of our own lives: Cooking our own food, raising our own kids, cleaning our own homes, and actually BEing with the people around us.

Successfully switching to a culture of being, from a culture of doing, requires reducing, among other things, the number of relationships that we claim for intimacy. Americans are loathe to surrender to the limits of their capacity – because it is pleasurable (and mythological) to live in the abstraction layer of abundance afforded us by ubiquitous technology and financial capital, not to mention the righteous fantasy generation of that little meat computer between our ears. It has become so common to do this – it is so culturally supported – it’s difficult to even recognize how dominant it is. Culture is transparent from the inside out, like a one way mirror.

Significant change usually comes from a place of emergency, disgust, or impoverishment; otherwise we’re just not motivated enough to undertake the effort. And it is a lot of effort. Sitting still long enough to discover these things within ourselves, requires patience and tolerance and kindness for oneself – not exactly skills that we get a lot of chance to develop along the way. Class, we will now sit still for an hour and practice recognizing and accepting our fear and self-loathing with loving-kindness…

Our values and intentions are difficult to quantify because the inner experience is so subjective. And we live in a culture that is crazed for quantification because that is how we convert nearly everything into financial currency, so it can go through the abstraction exchange that powers abundance. Americans are some of the hardest working, most creative and driven people in the world, but our cultural narrative is so fixated on expansion and achievement, we trample the development of our humanity in the rush to prove how great we are. We call the normal, second adolescence of adult psychological development a midlife crisis. How did a culture founded by pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, slaves and exiles become so disdainful of questioning the world around us, that is, the one we created? I actually find this heartbreaking.

The world will re-balance itself, to be sure; either through a catastrophic failure (likely in the economy or environment) or through the deliberate work and attention of humans – the same way we got here. I would prefer the latter, but it’s not as attention garnering as cataclysmic disaster. I’m not sure how you give kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-awareness mainstream appeal and commercial viability.

For my part, the best idea I have come up with, is simply to practice in the ordinary context of my ordinary life. Practice is like pulling that loose thread, before you know it, a whole bunch you weren’t expecting is undone. I am learning humility in spades, and pitching fits with every lesson. And I am doing the other, equally small and simple thing I can think of, which is to write. To tell my story, which is a story about being human. The hurt and hope in my pressable flesh, and ethereal spirit, are not so special as I fancy. We need voices of relief, voices that throw contrast against the crystalline instincts of our culture, so that their forms might be seen. Voices that name what’s already slumbering in the hearts of others, so that it might be known to them.

Gifts, Mother-Fucking Gifts

As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.

My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.

Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.

Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.

And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.

Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.

All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.

What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?

Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.

Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.

These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.