John Hendershot sends the following in response to my essay on gift and gratitude at firstthings.com today. The rest of this post is from Mr Hendershot.
Your article this morning in First Things reminded me of an incident in my childhood. The culture of gift giving is not unknown in American society; I was raised in such a culture. What might surprise you is that the culture in question existed in the United States Army. My father was a career officer in the Army. We moved frequently; the government was none too generous in its allowance for weight during such a move. It was a common occurrence to give away a great deal of “stuff” when you moved. Naturally, when you arrived at the next post it was not at all uncommon to receive a great deal of “stuff.” This was particularly true of those who had small children (very common) — I suspect that some of the clothing I wore had been around for about twenty years. What might interest you about this is that there was no sense that you could actually repay the giver. The phrase my father used (it was common at the time) was, “you can’t pay it back — you can only pass it on.”
This culture of passing it on ran into a culture of gift giving as you described when my family was stationed in Japan. My sister had just graduated from diapers — cloth only in those days — and my mother wanted to get rid of the diapers. In those days an Army officer in Japan could actually afford a maid. Our maid had mentioned to us that her sister was pregnant, so mom unhesitatingly passed on the diapers to her.
The next day my father was rather shocked to hear from the general commanding the post that our maid’s father wished to see him. We did not realize how highly placed in Japanese society he was. He was a merchant in fine pearls, and wished to give him a discount on the purchase of some fine pearls “for your women folk.” My father went down to his shop. When he arrived, he looked at the pearls in the window and realized that all of them were priced above his monthly salary. He went in; when he met the father he complimented him on the fine quality of the pearls in the window. The father politely said that such pearls were beneath his station in life. Dad was a finance officer; the Japanese regarded him as a banker, a person of high social status. He then took dad back behind the curtains, opened a safe that could’ve come out of a Western movie, and presented him with two sets of pearls. Even to dad’s untrained eyes it was obvious these were far superior to the ones in the window. There was some polite small talk, but when dad brought the conversation around to begin the bargaining on the price the merchant smiled and told him that they were a gift.
I do not know how much the pearls are worth today. But we recently had them restrung; the jeweler who did the job took one look at the pearls and said, “if you ever want to sell these, call me first.”
I cannot say how much this actually affected dad; but it was clear to his children that he lived the ethic of “pass it on.” In my own life I have adopted this; whenever God grants me the privilege of helping someone else and they ask me how they can pay me back, I simply tell them to pass it on.
Sometimes I get to see the results of that; usually I don’t. But my belief is that God will see to the results. He has given us so much it seems only fair to pass it on.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, August 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm
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