Giving Thanks and Consumerism
Some time ago I got up the guts to ask an internationally renowned scholar – who just happens to live in town – to speak to my students. I knew he was the right person to address a specific topic we had coming up, but I was basically way too nervous and intimidated to invite him. This paralyzed feeling went on for a couple months (yes, months).
Then one morning, for no particular reason, I sat down and rattled off an email invitation before I could think twice about it. A day or two later he accepted! I was stunned, excited and very grateful.
The speaking engagement was still a couple months away, so we agreed to meet a week or two out to go over logistics and touch base about content. When the day of our meeting arrived I made sure I had all my notes together, got my head straight, and arrived on time. NOTE: This man is a very kind, older gentleman, so the intimidation I felt was all in my head.
We had a very good meeting and as it was drawing to a close I transitioned comfortably into my standard concluding statements with invited speakers. Basically, I communicate how thankful we are that they will be joining us and let them know that we offer a (modest) stipend to communicate that gratitude. Now, some folks decline the stipend for a variety of reasons, so in that case I offer them some item of our logo “gear” instead as a token of appreciation. “Gear” would include such items as a sweater, fleece, polo, scarf, portfolio, etc…
In this case, when I mentioned the stipend, our speaker adamantly declined, saying that by no means did he need a stipend. I was a little surprised with the level of conviction he was communicating, but I transitioned to asking what he might most use or enjoy along the lines of gear. His response in this case was he already had a sweater, shirt, scarf, etc…and none of that would be necessary. Again, he was definitive and adamant, so I concluded our conversation by expressing my thanks and letting him know how happy we were that he would be joining us.
But as I was leaving I was struck with the feeling that I had no way to adequately thank this man. The easy means that I rely upon to communicate my gratitude had been declined. And yet this speaker in particular was someone to whom I wanted to be able to express my extreme gratitude.
I realized that all that was left to me was to write him a really good thank you note. (Even as I write this it sounds somewhat woefully inadequate.) I write every speaker a thank you note, but usually I know it will be in addition to or accompanying some other expression of my thanks. So the thank you notes I write are often your standard 3-4 sentence variety: opening line, one or two detail sentences, and then a closing — not insincere, but not requiring a ton of personal investment.
So, that is what I tried to do. He spoke to our group and did a truly wonderful job. The next morning I sat down to write the very best thank you note I could. It took a good bit of time and focus. I am sure it was nothing spectacular, as the written word goes, but I poured something of myself into it.
The whole experience highlighted to me how often in our society we equate magnitude with money. That is to say, the most highly valued jobs offer the greatest remuneration, the most highly valued objects cost the most money – from food to electronics to homes. Often, perhaps too often, if we want to show someone how much we value them, we spend a lot of money. And this can be either in the context of work – offer a bigger salary, stipend, or bonus; or home – buy a more expensive gift or more gifts.
But in this situation I couldn’t resort to spending more money on a stipend or a particularly nice token. I had nothing to offer except some bit of myself – my time, my attention, my attempt at consideration. As Christians we know (don’t we?) there is no greater gift than the gift of self.