Gifts and Selves

Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman reviewing The Lost Daughter:

To give life to someone else is always to give away something of your own and to saddle yourself with a love that can be almost unbearable. A child’s life really does come at the cost of yours. But Ferrante’s novels, which cover decades and span multiple generations, remind the reader that no matter how hard we might try, life cannot be hoarded. Every life is a life that will be lost. We grow up, we grow old, we lose our youth and strength and eventually we lose the sources of creativity and inspiration that make it possible for us to create something new of our own. This is true whether or not we have children. If we have them, along the way, we can at least pass on something of what we lose to someone else. This possibility—of sharing our life, entrusting that which we will lose to someone else—may be one good reason not to try to escape, after all.

And Leah Libresco Sargeant on gift economies:

Opening our hands and letting our wealth pass through them can be difficult, but it is the practice version of the real generosity that God calls us to. Wealth is a temptation, but we can physically let it go, and once it is out of our hands, it is hard to reclaim, even if our heart aches for it.

But the real calling is to hold our selves just as loosely.

She then quotes a footnote from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property:

If our lives are gifts to begin with, however, in some sense they are not “ours” even when we become adults. Or perhaps they are, but only until such time as we find a way to bestow them. The belief that life is a gift carries with it the corollary feeling that the gift should not be hoarded.

All of which brings to mind St. Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John 29.3, where he tries to resolve the apparent contradiction in Christ’s statement in John 7:16: Mea doctrina non est mea, sed eius qui misit me (“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me”). Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in his Introduction to Christianity summarized Augustine’s solution to the apparent problem:

[Augustine] asks himself first whether it is not a sheer contradiction, an offense against the elementary rules of logic, to say something like “Mine is not mine.” But, he goes on to ask, digging deeper, what, then, is the teaching of Jesus that is simultaneously his and not his? Jesus is “word” [Augustine quotes John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”], and thus it becomes clear that his teaching is he himself. If one reads the sentence again with this insight, it then says: I am by no means just I; I am not mine at all; my I is that of another. With this we have moved on out of Christology and arrived at ourselves: “Quid tam tuum quam tu, quid tam non tuum quam tu”—What is so much yours as yourself, and what is so little yours as yourself? The most individual element in us—the only thing that belongs to us in the last analysis—our own “I”, is at the same time the least individual element of all, for it is precisely our “I” that we have neither from ourselves nor for ourselves. The “I” is simultaneously what I have completely and what least of all belongs to me. Thus here again the concept of mere substance (=what stands in itself!) is shattered, and it is made apparent how being that truly understands itself grasps at the same time that in being itself it does not belong to itself; that it only comes to itself by moving away from itself and finding its way back as relatedness to its true primordial state.

Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius, 2004), p. 190

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