Giving without a thought of getting

This time last year, the world (me included) was going mad shopping online. People seemed to be making a concerted, albeit subconscious, effort to make up for not being able to travel home. To reach out and be closer to friends and family who never before had seemed so far away, we sent stuff because we couldn’t send ourselves. Quarantine rules meant people spent the holidays in Airbnb’s often just minutes from their families. Many didn’t travel at all, and instead spent their first Christmas in Budapest.

This year, my pendulum has swung the other way. I’m in a state of quiet rebellion. I haven’t been shopping. If I do presents at all, they’ll be tokens. Homemade. Recycled. Upcycled. Eco friendly.

In the spirit of the season that’s in it, my good friend SJ in India wanted to send me something from Chennai. Given the bureaucracy required to get a package delivered to Hungary from outside the EU, I asked him to go to St Thomas’s Cathedral and light a candle for me that I might find inspiration and another for my parents that they might enjoy better health.

I have what I need. And I hope it stays that way. I hope that I won’t be one of the 274 million people worldwide who – according to Global Humanitarian Overview report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – will need some form of emergency assistance in 2022. One in every 29 people in the world will need help in 2022. Staggering news. I hope you’re not one of them. That’s my Christmas hope.

Yes, it’s coming up to Christmas. And Christmas is about giving and getting, isn’t it? Remember Dr Seuss and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

Thomas S. Monson, sixteenth president of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a man whom I’ve only recently come across, is said to have said:

Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others. It is discarding the meaningless and stressing the true values.

In an interview with The Harvard Gazette on what Monson’s death in 2018 meant for the church, John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History David Holland, had this to say:

He asked everyone to live close enough to the spirit of God and close enough to their neighbors that we can hear and respond to the cry of distress when it is raised, even when it issues from the silence of a suffering heart.

Instead of being caught up in the clamour of giving and receiving and the commercial materiality of Christmas, wouldn’t it be nice if we were quiet enough to hear the needs of others and to help if we could? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if we could do this year-round?

While Christmas embodies the spirit of giving, the spirit of giving knows no season. Give what you can, when you can, I say. If you’re reluctant to give to charities because you’re not sure where the money goes, here are a few I support and can personally vouch for.

In Hungary, TAMI is doing great work to create a better future for the kids of Tarnabod, a village 113km east of Budapest but a world removed from the cosmopolitan city. The volunteers give freely of their time and fund their own travel. And they’re all volunteers. I was introduced to them four years ago when I visited Tarnabod. They’re a  pretty amazing bunch of people with big hearts who are realising big dreams.

Another Hungarian charity that does stellar work is Ételt az életért (Food for Life). I first met them about ten years ago when I visited the ISKCON temple in Csillaghegy. It is mind-blowing to think that in the twenty-first century in a European capital, people cannot afford to feed themselves. Every day, FFL distributes ‘vegetarian, love-filled food’ to 2,000 of the city’s poor and ‘many hundreds more in other parts of the country’.

While TAMI is working to give kids hope, and FFL is working to keep people fed, Kiútprogram is working to get people into employment. There is extreme poverty in parts of North-Eastern Hungary. Generational poverty. Working to break the cycle by empowering people to live from their jobs,  Kiútprogram provides labour-intensive training, counselling, and low-margin collateral-free loans for those who want to start a business. They also offer training to and connect those who want to work for someone else. I’ve only recently been introduced to them. Fascinated by what they do, I’ll be writing more about them soon.

Across the border in Romania, the folks at Casa Buna are an inspiration. If among your New Year’s Resolutions, you’re thinking about starting a volunteer organisation to help your local community, theirs is a model to follow. I’ll happily send you an English version of their last annual report so you can see what can be achieved when good people put their heads and hearts together to make their world a better place.

Further afield, my sympathies are with Myanmar. I’ve been following May, a friend of a friend, a young woman who returned home from New Zealand to write her thesis and instead found herself caught up in a revolution. Listening to her account of that moment, that single event that changed the course of her life, I repeatedly asked myself what I would have done had I been in her place.  I am so far removed from what she is going through that it’s difficult to really understand the measure of it. I can send thoughts and prayers her way, and more pragmatically, I can give what I can, when I can.

Monson’s take on Christmas being the spirit of giving without a thought of getting is one I subscribe to. But the irony is, that in giving, I get. I get meaning. Knowing that every time I invoice a client, someone other than me will benefit makes my work more meaningful. Knowing that in choosing to shop responsibly, some small business or charity will grow a little makes my giving more meaningful. Knowing that getting involved, however peripherally, in the good that’s being done in Hungary gives me hope for a better tomorrow. And that’s meaningful.

P.S. If you’ve not heard Matthew West’s song, The Hope of Christmas, treat yourself.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir | Boldog karácsonyt mindenkinek | Happy Christmas to you all.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2021

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