Is It Better To Give Or Receive?

I saw a tweet by Maria Popova linking to a piece she wrote about the philosopher Seneca’s thoughts on gratitude and thought it might make an appropriate post for Thanksgiving. Seneca was a proponent of the idea that giving should be done for the sake of giving, not receiving anything in return.

There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

I happened to click a little errantly and saw Popova’s most recent post quoting John Steinbeck who felt it was more virtuous to receive well than to give.

It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

In fact, Steinbeck apparently had felt a degree of disdain for wealthy philanthropists who gave large sums after engaging in extractive and exploitative practices, a situation to which we may have circled around to again by some measures.

Writes Steinbeck:

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing. One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.

Germany Gives 18 Year Olds The Gift of Culture

Over the years, I have written a fair bit on culture passes that various European countries have distributed to young people.  In addition to passes for cultural experiences and goods, some of the passes have been focused on facilitating rail travel so young people can experience a wider swath of national and international places and events.

According to a Guardian article from last week, Germany is the most recent country to tee up a program.   When Germans turn 18 they will receive a €200 Kulturpass. The goal is to not only get young people engaged with cultural activities, but to also inject some economic vitality post-Covid.

…has twin aims: to encourage young adults to experience live culture and drop stay-at-home pandemic habits; and give a financial boost to the arts scene, which has yet to recover from repeated lockdowns.


The finance minister, Christian Lindner, described the pass as “cultural start-up capital” that its recipients can use within a two-year period for everything from theatre and concert tickets to books or music. It will be managed via an app and a website that provides a direct connection to a virtual marketplace of everything from bookshops to theatres.

Perhaps most interesting is that the program is intentionally designed to have the 18 year olds “shop locally” as it were and excludes large online platforms and purchases.

Online platforms such as Amazon and Spotify have been excluded from the scheme, which places an emphasis on smaller, often local organisations, such as independent cinemas and bookshops. Individual purchases will be limited in value to prevent someone from using the voucher to buy, for example, a single concert ticket for €200.

I am curious to know if the German government analyzed the programs in places like Spain, France and Italy for design problems. The goals of these other countries were similar in terms of stimulating interest in in-person experiences. The German program seems to have more restrictions built in to achieve that.

Guests Can Change The Rules

I was out taking a walk this weekend and flipped over to the NPR livestream just as an episode of the Splendid Table came on. As they introduced the second guest, Priya Parker, I wondered why her name sounded familiar until I recalled Ruth Hartt frequently cites Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering.

The interview with Parker starts at about the 35:30 mark  (if you want to miss Chef Vivian Howard’s discussion of a pine needle and rosemary turkey brine that makes you house smell like a Thanksgiving scented candle as you cook the bird, that is your business). She talks about the power of the guest in a social situation. While the host has a type of power, the guests decide whether they will assent to the rules.

Among the examples she gives are a guest at a housewarming party who asked everyone to go around and talk about what they liked about the house. Parker points out that for a host to initiate that would seem a bit arrogant and self-centered, but for a guest it is something of a gift to the host and centers the event around the reason for the gathering.

At host Francis Lam’s encouragement, Parker also shared that while she was on her honeymoon, a wedding guest emailed them with a list of 20 things they loved about the wedding. Some were things that Parker and her husband knew about, but quite a few on the list were moments of delight that the newlyweds didn’t witness. Parker says this is an example of a guest contributing to the “meaning making” of an experience. It is a reflection back to the host and perhaps other guests on those things that made the event special.

It occurred to me that social media helps people in doing that reflection, though it also can cause people to strive to manufacture meaning they hadn’t felt so that they can participate with the rest of the group. Perhaps much like the surfeit of standing ovations at the end of performances.  Though she says there is a specificity that delineates meaningful reflection from an expression of gratitude.

I figured I had enough to turn into a blog post and apply it to performing arts when Parker launched into a anecdote about how guests impacted her experience at Bemelmans Bar in NYC’s Carlyle Hotel. The bar features murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books.  She related how she had been there with friends when a pianist emerged and began playing at about 5:30 pm.

About a half hour later, three people came in and sat at a table near the piano, turned their seats to face the performer rather than each other and then applauded at the end of the next song. That drew the attention of the rest of the bar  to the pianist and they began applauding as well. From that point on, there was applause after every number and people shifted their chairs around to face the piano.

Parker said the conversation didn’t stop at that point, but the pianist was acknowledged at every interval for the rest of the night. She said the action of those three people contributed to the magic of the experience for her because they “change the social contract among the guests” with a small gesture and “suddenly we belonged to a place.”

As I referenced earlier, this is an illustration of the power that guests wield in a social situation. At first, the agreed rules were that guest could ignore the musician. Then three people came in and changed the rules of the room from the musician is providing background music for your conversation to the musician is providing a performance for all of us. It would have been difficult for the host/management to demand the room pay attention to the pianist when he started playing, but three people were able to non-verbally communicate a new lens for the experience and the group complied.

It make you think about how much we should be grateful to audiences for contributing to the success of an evening.  Of course the logical extension of that is that we need to focus more on the experience and enjoyment of the audience.

Doesn’t It Need To Be *About* Something?

My nephew is in the throes of writing essays for college applications so perhaps that is why a Twitter thread by author Kelly Barnhill caught my attention a month ago. She talks about how neighborhood kids have been coming and asking her for help in writing the essay. She writes about all the writing exercises and ensuing conversations she has with them trying to draw information and realization out.

“I have them write jokes, treatises, manifestos. I have them make graphic essays. Comics. Yard signs. I have them make lists. We talk about verbs. We talk about how we know what we know.”

But the part I really honed in on was this one:

She goes on to talk about how people often don’t know themselves well enough to write about themselves and in fact other people might have greater insight about you than yourself. Which is probably why it is easier to write about your grandmother.

But this resonated with me on a more practical level because I feel like the college essay about how you overcame obstacles in your life was a new enough subject when I was applying to college that it was relevant to your admission. Now, decades later it is cliched and overdone making it all the more difficult for a person with 17 years of relatively unexamined life experience to set themselves apart from other applicants. (And it probably doesn’t help that college admission consultants are telling his parents he would have a better chance of gaining admission to his top choices if he lived in the Midwest rather than East Coast.)

While Barnhill doesn’t say how successful her essay writers are in getting into their top choices, I appreciate that she provides a rather detailed accounting of how she helps create an essay that better reflects their authentic self.  She is giving them the bones of a learning how to learn process that can serve them well throughout their lives if they pay close enough attention.

Also, it occurs to me that she is inadvertently giving an answer to the oft asked query regarding a work of art – “What’s it about??, What does it mean?” Art doesn’t always have to be about SOMETHING to be about something.