To give or not to give?

Recently on Facebook, a friend of mine shared a link to a blog post that encourages people to accept a challenge to Buy Nothing until the New Year. Although I can relate to sentiments of disenchantment and cynicism about how commercial the holidays are these days, I have to disagree with the all-or-nothing approach to transforming one’s relationship to spending during the winter holiday season. I disagree as an artist, as a gift-giver, and as a follower of my own path.

I am an artist

It’s hard to make a living as an artist. It’s even harder when potential customers are being dissuaded from buying anything from anyone who has anything to sell. The Buy Nothing campaign lumps me in with big corporations as if it were greedy of me to want to put food on my table by sharing the fruits of my artistic efforts.

Art is something I have an emotional and spiritual need to do in my life. If my time is spent having to make a living from some other occupation, then there is less time and energy for me to manifest my art, and the artist within me suffers from the deprivation. So I choose to keep the creation of art active in my life by giving it the additional task of being my source of income.

But in order to make a living with my art, I have to rely on people being willing to buy it. In practical terms, that means I rely on people being willing to buy for gift-giving occasions. The winter holiday season is important for the livelihood of artists and artisans because it’s an occasion when art, in the form of gifts or cards, can be seen as an acceptable expense. At other times, for most people, art is not seen as essential or important enough to warrant spending money on it. It’s not that people don’t like art — in fact, they often “appreciate” it by sharing it on the internet. But they routinely do so by violating an artist’s copyright rather than entering a fair trade exchange of money for the value they receive. During the gift-giving season, though, there is a bit more of a chance that at least some gift-givers will choose to purchase a gift of art in one form or another — a T-shirt, a mug, a print to hang on the wall, or maybe just a greeting card to help them spread their message of holiday cheer.

I follow my own path of celebration

For people like myself, even those of us who are not religious in any conventional sense, the winter holidays serve as a time to feel connected in specific ways, whether through wide-spread traditions or simply one’s own personal rituals. For many people, gift-giving is a part of that. Let’s recognize that it’s not the only part: people already celebrate and connect in other ways as well. But gift-giving is definitely part of celebration, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s worth repeating: there’s nothing wrong with gift-giving. It’s the modern obsessive and stressful sense of obligation that’s problematic, if it arises at all. In my case, it doesn’t, because I’ve already processed all of that and found the path that’s right for me. I invite you to do the same, if you feel the need to do so. Abstaining from spending because there is simply no money to spend is one thing. But if you come to the conclusion that you’d better abstain altogether for political reasons rather than personal financial ones, then I might question how fully you’ve processed and are able to have an authentic and balanced relationship with the issues involved. However, even in that case, I’m not telling you what path you should follow when it comes to gift-giving. I believe that choice should be your own.

Why would we abdicate our own autonomy of thought and relinquish our personal paths to follow anyone else’s idea of what is and is not socio-politically worthy as a tradition or ritual? If I become stressed by a misplaced sense of obligation to buy, why would I impose on myself an opposite obligation NOT to buy? Why would it be wiser to take such an all-or-nothing view of the situation than to take a deep breath, monitor what I’m feeling, and evaluate which aspects of it are false duties I can release and which ones are sources of joy that I might want to cherish? Whether it’s my own joy as a gift-giver or the joy of those receiving, quashing it would help no one.

I am a gift-giver

When I’m financially comfortable and have enough to spare, why would I shut down to sharing my abundance? Why would I not support small independent businesses, artisans, and artists, but rather penalize the little vendors for the transgressions of big corporations? Why would I deny myself and my loved ones the joy of giving just because it involves an exchange of energy in the form of money?

At other times, when I’m having financial difficulties, it doesn’t “free” me to deny myself the option to participate in the tradition, it only highlights the deprivation. During hard times, I find it’s nice to give myself permission, once a year, to buy a few non-necessities for a few of the people I love. By limiting how much and to whom I give, I can do this in a self-aware and responsible way that doesn’t overburden my long-term financial capabilities. It may not involve as much giving as I’d like emotionally, nor as much saving as I’d like financially, so in that sense it may not be ideal. But because I have not opted for total deprivation during hard times, it has kept me feeling human rather than totally destitute.

What does it really mean to be free?

Is it worth it for me to process my feelings even further so as to come to a place where I never feel destitute no matter what my financial circumstances? Sure. But in the meantime, that feeling wouldn’t be dissipated by a commitment to abstain from all non-essential spending. Especially if the directive came from outside of myself and was presented as a “challenge” and a political statement, with language that seems judgemental and intended to induce guilt. In fact, if I bought into that perspective, I’d say I’d be entrenching myself in an even more entangled prison than if I were simply to be myself and follow the course of action I’d already chosen as most appropriate for my personal circumstances.

Freedom from consumerism does not necessitate — and cannot be bought by following — a rule that you shouldn’t buy anything until a determined date. At best, it replaces one tyranny with another. The only way to be free is to be non-attached, aware, and responsive to all the realities of a situation.

I won’t urge you to follow the same path as me, or to follow any particular rules about exchanging energy in the form of money or gifts or however else you celebrate the season, if you do at all. I invite you simply to be true to yourself, explore the issues without guilt or stress or fear, and find your own path to what is best for you when it comes to gift-giving and spending this holiday season.

And whatever path you choose… may it be merry and joyous and full of love and light!