Recently, I learned a little bit about giving. I was walking to catch a bus on a soggy morning, brooding over the fact that I had to be at work earlier than usual, my mood darkened by a general dissatisfaction with my job. Tired of winter and tired of my routine, I felt older than my years.
Trudging along, I saw an elderly gentleman emerge from a house down the street. Bundled against the wind in a suit, coat, and hat, he began collecting the trash that littered the sidewalk. He was a picture of determination, gathering wrappings and cigarette butts in his hands and carrying them to the trash can at the corner.
I slowed my stride to watch. He was neither quick nor limber. Yet he was beginning his day with an energy far removed from my melancholy. I wanted to thank him - not so much for the cleaner sidewalk, for that was the outer part of the gift. More important, this man was giving me his young spirit: the sincerity of work done for its own sake because it needed doing, as well as his evident dedication and thoroughness.
He probably did not think of his actions as a gift at all, and I did not voice my thanks. But I did thank him inwardly, as I often find myself thanking briefly met people who give to me much more than they intend to. I take my most treasured gifts from the stock of beauty that is given to the world at large, morsels of which find their way into my life by the least-expected roads: a line of a book skimmed in a store, a fragment of music heard briefly in the midst of a busy day, a child whose fresh, surprising clarity lightens the weight of adulthood. The greatest gifts are unexpected, and often come from strangers.
Giving is not limited to holidays and anniversaries. These times are formal celebrations - rituals, you might say - performed in recognition of the uninterrupted giving and taking which is the nature of our lives. From the day's first thought to the last, we are contributing to the quality of the world. Present thoughts build the basis of future actions; today's actions elicit tomorrow's responses; these responses in turn influence and reinforce our thoughts and attitudes. In this circular fashion we are constantly trading with one another, and in so doing we mutually create the environment in which we live.
We may never know the recipient of our gifts, or hear his silent thanks. For this very reason they must be given continuously; they must be lived.
What shall we give each other? Exactly what we would like to receive. Giving is the delicate art of being what you are, in cooperation with what is needed. In this, there is only one talent: Simply be what you would like to get.