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December: A Time for Giving?

December, 2009
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Winter is here yet again. Flakes of snow whisper to the ground and cover it like spilled milk. We trade our shorts for pants, our shirts for sweaters and our pastel palates for dreary grays. Demeter is mourning the loss of her daughter, Persephone, as she re-joins her husband in the underworld. The year is coming to a close, and yet another cycle is about to begin.

“December is a time of giving,” says a smiling older man from an English TV commercial. “So come on down and buy your loved ones a gift that they deserve.” How cliché: yet another business trying to exploit traditional celebrations for economic gain.

What the older man is really saying, through smiling eyes, is, “if you happen to love someone, you must, therefore, buy them a gift of material value to prove it. After all, this is the time of giving!”

Or…is it really a time of expectation? Why do we give gifts, anyway? Is it because we are expected to? Or is it because we want something in return? Why must we give material possessions in order to show we care?

“My family called all our relatives and asked them not to buy us anything for Christmas. This way we won’t have to buy them anything in return,” said a good friend, Nathan Ho when asked about gift giving this season. “What’s the point in getting something for them that they probably won’t use and vice versa for us? This way we all keep our money instead of running around stores just to exchange the form of cash in the end.”

This, in itself, seemed like a logical and economical way of handling the gift-giving frenzy most encounter during the holidays, but it made me stop and think. It seems like, in this new age of the 21st century, giving as a genuine act of selflessness has been corroded and deformed and its true form is unrecognizable. The act of giving is still there, but the reason behind the action has been twisted. The worst bit? Many people haven’t even noticed this twist, like an earthquake at night. We are going through tired motions. We are workers at an assembly line.

It is easy to give. In fact, people give all the time. It is easier to give material possessions though than to actually get up and make a commitment. However, most Beijing high schools encourage students to make this commitment in order to complete service hours. In fact, it is mandatory to complete a certain number of these hours to graduate the IB program. Students give money to orphanages, some decide to help out at local schools, some organize fundraisers and some volunteer at charity organizations.

But this, again, brings into question what our motivation for giving is really based on. Do we actually give ourselves up for others and make a sacrifice? Or do we give because we are expected to? Does motivation even matter when the outcome is good?

“I don’t think I would have done much service if it wasn’t required. I don’t think I would’ve joined any community services if my friends weren’t there either!” said Amanda Teo about her service hours for the IB. Many students from international schools say that their initial motivation for doing service was “because we had to”. However, as time went on and the students accumulated more hours, their mentalities changed.

“I went once with friends to a hospital to visit little kids with heart problems and I really liked it. So I decided to go a few more times,” says Misagh Dinyarian, a TEDA International School graduate. “At first you might be like ‘nahhh, I don’t really want to do this’. But when you do, it really grabs you. I had always wanted to go but never pushed myself. Then eventually someone asked me to go with them. After that, I really wanted to go!”

One might ask, therefore, whether giving for the right reasons really makes a difference anyway. What does it matter if the outcome is good?

There are different reasons for which people give: some do it because they want to feel better about themselves, and some give because they genuinely want others to be happy and comfortable. But although giving for the right reason has more power, good is done nevertheless. People are affected and many of those who do the giving are touched by the experience.

One of my fondest memories of service during high school was attending a Habitat for Humanity trip to help re-build houses for flood victims in rural China. Others include going to rural Chinese schools to re-paint classrooms and meet the students. Although this service was done under the context of mandatory hours, I still treasure these times of ‘giving’ regardless of the motives behind the act.

“You know, in the end, everyone was glad they’d done service,” Amanda recalls. “No one really dreaded doing good deeds. I think all in all it’s a great experience to be part of that in high school. I don’t get much time or energy to join anything now that I’m in university but I’d volunteer if I didn’t have as much work.”

So maybe being pushed into giving is what we all need in order to want to give for the right reasons. Maybe that is what finally opens our hearts to a more selfless act of giving. But whether it is buying Christmas presents for friends and family or giving up your own wants and needs to ensure that another’s remain satisfied and intact, giving is still a special gesture in our everyday lives. People’s motivations for giving are different and the true act of selfless service may not be the initial reason.

So the next time you go to buy a birthday present or give money to charity, stop to think about why it is that you are giving. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. Give something that means something. Give up a part of yourself. Make a sacrifice that will make a difference. Happy holidays!

By Amelia Yan

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