Some years ago, I read Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), which got me to thinking about the nature of hospitality. When one reads the Bible and other narratives of antiquity, one is struck about the importance of hospitality in the past, and how wicked it was to abuse one's guests. In our day, it seems like hospitality is understood more in terms of ingratitude, rather than in terms of one's obligation of being a good host. While I, like most, decry those who bite the hands who feed them, I feel that we have downplayed the moral obligation to help the less fortunate. I will be following up on the hospitality concept later. Right now, I would like to share a parable, or allegory, regarding what I perceive to be the root of humanity's discontent: our inability to recognize, or appreciate, one another's gifts. Please see this also in the context of Pioneer Day and the global refugee crisis.
The Story of the Gifts
Once there was a family. They were given everything they needed by the Lord of All. They had bodies, they had a wealth of resources to sustain themselves. They would have to work to use these resources properly, so they would be fed, clothed and sheltered. But if they didn’t work, their bodies became sick from disuse. They also became sick or hungry if they overly consumed resources, or didn’t clean up after themselves, or didn’t try to replenish the supply. Somehow, that wasn’t enough for some, so they went elsewhere. A brother who stayed behind decided that he wasn’t getting enough recognition, so he killed his brother and claimed his property. He was sent away, but went around to the others and persuaded them that it was better to take than receive. So, whereas people received their gifts for free before, they started resorting to force and deception. People found all sorts of excuses to fight. They felt they were disrespected. They didn’t like how property was divided up. They felt they were more deserving of ownership than the actual owners. They felt that their beliefs were more important than someone else’s. They thought they were simply better than the others. So much better, in fact, that they decided some ought to be owned by them. If they didn’t own them, they should at least serve their putative masters for the rest of their lives.
So, war became a strategy. It became the most important activity for a lot of people. When they weren’t fighting wars, they were daily devising ways to keep people away from the gifts to which they were formerly entitled. Soon, there were big gaps between what people owned, and what they didn’t. Some had more than they could ever possibly use in their lifetimes. Others never had quite enough. Some became sick because they overate and exercised too little. Others were sick because they didn’t have enough to eat, or to wear, or because they didn’t have adequate shelter. People forgot that they used to all have just what they needed. So, they thought that those better off deserved to be, that they were more favored by the gods. Those who were poor, they thought, were that way because they were too weak, unambitious, inferior, poor managers. The gods had accursed them. If others brought up that this was unfair, they were condemned as being too weak or overly indulgent.
After fighting for a long, long time, people rediscovered faith. They thought it would be better to help the less fortunate, to be less proud, to remember who gave them the gifts to begin with. People became so convinced that this was a good idea, they decided that everyone needed to believe this. If they didn’t, it was back to the battlefield. If people were robbed, maimed or killed, that was just an unfortunate consequence. The higher purpose was to convert people to the Truth.
If other people did not understand the Truth because they spoke another language, or had a wholly different culture, that didn’t matter. They deserved destruction if they didn’t convert. Fortunately, the conquerors didn’t destroy everybody. After they ran out of heathen and infidels to convert on land, they went across the ocean and discovered people who had moved away long ago, who had so forgotten the ways of the Lord of All that they were sacrificing men, women and children to other gods. The other people had done away with this practice long ago. So, they converted them to the higher way of living. It became easier to accept this, because they didn’t do away with human sacrifice altogether. Instead of sacrificing members of their families to their gods, they sacrificed them to bondage, prostitution, backbreaking toil in behalf of their masters, addictions, and mortal combat in behalf of the state.
Over time, it became harder and harder for the powerful to be satisfied with what they owned. Sometimes, the less powerful gained ground. They now would be paid for their work, they began to own property, they began to have enough to eat, a roof over their heads. They even began to live longer. The powerful began to be concerned.
What was always difficult for the powerful to understand is how someone who was less powerful could be beautiful, talented and even smart. The powerful liked owning things. They were frustrated that they couldn’t always own bodies, just people’s time. If they did own bodies, they couldn’t own talents, beauty or minds. So, in their dissatisfaction, they thought that if some couldn’t be owned, they might as well be eliminated. It was no longer a question of converting or enslaving them. It was becoming easier, after all, to get rid of people with greater and greater efficiency.
People got so good at destroying great numbers of their fellow men that they decided they couldn’t afford to live like this. War was becoming too successful. War didn’t go away, however. It was just waged on a smaller scale. Slavery didn’t go away, either. It was practiced on a wide scale by landlords, pimps, and sweatshop owners who found ways to convince their employees that they owned them. The powerful also found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, convincing them if they just worked harder, they could be rich, too. They gave the poor loans, which they found very difficult, if not impossible, to pay back. But the poor thought this was generous, because they now had goods and services on credit. Occasionally, a poor person would win at lotteries or at gambling ventures, which seemed to prove that the wealthy cared about the poor. Poor people sometimes became famous entertainers or athletes, so this was proof the system worked. The powerful also promised that if they just acquired more, it would be easier to share their surplus with the needy.
As the needy grew more and more needful, it became harder and harder for the powerful to convince them to be contented with their lot. When the needy started to rebel, the powerful convinced them that strangers were their enemy. When they finally decided that strangers weren’t to blame, the powerful convinced the needy that there were some among them receiving more than their fair share. This, too, worked for a long time. Finally, the needy started to demand more of the largesse of the powerful. The powerful had seductive storytellers and entertainers, craven rulers, all sorts of inane media distractions, mind-numbing food and drugs, and mighty armies at their disposal. The needy had their anger, their faith, and their vast numbers. It was time for a showdown.
The Lord of All had intervened many times in their history, to stave off the total destruction of the descendants of the first family. Since people now had the means to totally destroy themselves, He paid them a call. There was still a lot of destruction, but at least a lot of people were spared. Some had been powerful. Most had been needy. After so much was lost, people decided once again that some things just weren’t worth owning. They saw once again that the original gifts, such as having a body, having a life, having a family, having a home, food to eat, a roof over the head, a place to lay one’s head, responsible work to do, service to perform, were quite valuable indeed.