The Cost of Giving: Is It Really Worth It?

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

don’t know what kind of weird glitch I have in my neurochemistry that compels me—whenever I have a glass of wine or alcohol of any kind—to give everything I love away. Brand new dresses, coats, notebooks, paint—whatever I have newly purchased and hold dear to my heart, which is pretty much everything because of my love of stuff. One drink, and you can count on it: The next day I will wake up and it will all be gone.

I would like to say that I am such a wonderful, loving person that I just revel in the joy of giving, but there is little of that sense of fulfillment. Sometimes I wake up and hate the person I’ve just given all my stuff to, as if they are responsible. It is particularly upsetting when I see gifts I have bestowed on some unsuspecting victim tossed into the dumpster, most particularly a painting that I have labored days on—right smack in the dumpster.

It has been brought to my attention recently in a mildly painful way that my gifts are often misunderstood, as in the case of my former neighbor, Jacob, who just moved back to Memphis. Through various conversations with other people in the neighborhood, I had learned that he was frequently clinically depressed. I empathized greatly with this, for when I was his age, 25, I suffered from the same malaise and sometimes could not get out of bed for days due to feelings of despair. Through the wonders of medicine, I got better, but memories of my former wasteland of desolation are still present enough that I feel a strong connection to those who yet suffer in their own badlands. Further, Jacob is a gifted writer, which compounded my feeling of connection. So, through the course of a year, in my compulsion to give, I presented him my favorite book on poetry, several books on writing, and a couple of sunflowers during the summer. Before he departed for his new life in Memphis, we shared a glass of wine together and discussed our experiences and struggles with addiction, and then said goodbye. I saw him two or three times afterward, but from the way he shunned me I became aware that he thought I had some sort of cougar-esque infatuation with him and was horrified.

He would have only had to look around our small neighborhood near Sassy Anne’s to see similar presents left on doorknobs of men and women alike—some near-strangers who must have thought me very strange—to have known this was not true. But there are some things we cannot do anything about, including what other people think about us.

Whatever Jacob may have theorized about why I gave him gifts throughout the year, the story had a happy ending for me: He returned every single thing I ever gave him before he left. He demonstrated for me one of my favorite sayings in quite a literal way—“Whatever you put out comes back to you.” Seeing the presents I had given to him returned on my doorstep was like seeing old friends, though I’m pretty sure he was trying to send me a different message altogether.

Having been schooled for years in an on-and-off fashion by AA, I am aware of the tendency of alcoholics and addicts alike to indulge in “love-me-love-me” people-pleasing. But I’m feeling pretty well loved, at the moment, so I don’t believe this is the case. Giving, for me, is the addiction. A function of OCD, florid mania, whatever, it’s not the worst addiction one could have. And probably, if I would give up the underlying addiction, that of alcoholism, the other one would vanish on its own. And, in any case, most of the things I have given away were just reminders of yet another addiction, that of spending rashly. So you could say it’s a good thing. (You might be wondering if there’s anything I’m not addicted to? Answer: cleaning. I’m definitely not addicted to cleaning.)

But the bottom line is, whenever you give exorbitantly and inappropriately, people don’t love you more—they merely think you’re stupid.

On one occasion, after I had a show of my paintings at the Birdhouse in 4th and Gill, I made the mistake of bringing a newly met artist back to my home, having a few too many, and showering the woman—a complete stranger—with unwelcome gifts. Off she went with her husband, both laden down with my scarves, coats, sweaters, a couple of very large paintings. If that wasn’t enough, my friend Andy, another person of many addictions, sat making crude jokes. When they asked him what he did for a living, he crossed his knees, took a swig of vodka, and replied, completely unperturbed, “I do absolutely nothing.”

Another incident involved a brand-new, bright yellow Moleskine journal that I had just bought. But, you guessed it, before the day was over (and after a couple of glasses of red wine), I had given it away to someone who barely acknowledges my presence in the neighborhood. She is fond of saying “I love you” several times a day to everyone she meets, sometimes even me. Yet when those words are used that often and that indiscriminately, they become meaningless and irrelevant, almost like a compulsive tick in her vocabulary. As soon as I saw that yellow journal lying on her bed, I felt sick and knew I shouldn’t have done it. But this story, too, has a happy ending. When I told Flossie, one of the owners of Union Ave Books, that I had given away my journal, which I had bought at her store, she promptly gave me a new one in pale lavender. Again, a beautiful example of what you give coming back to you.

But what about just keeping your own stuff and letting other people keep theirs in the first place?

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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