the giving field

A gift is a wild thing

Daniel Séguin

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Few of our commonplace experiences remain as fundamentally mysterious as the simple act of giving. Most of us think of a gift as a vector, something with a point on the end, like an arrow, that travels in a specific direction from one person to another. But look more closely. Who is the giver? Who is the receiver? And just what, in truth, is the gift?

These are stubborn questions unless we recognize that giving and receiving are not two different things at all. They are expressions of one fundamental, directionless force — not a vector but a field. The gift is not something we do to or for each other. It is something that happens to each of us as we enter into relationship.

Lately, I have spent much of my time studying places of service: schools, community organizations, advocacy groups, healthcare facilities. Those that are most alive and vibrant have in common a kind of blessed confusion about who is giving to whom. People, no matter their role, seem infused with a gentle and expectant gratitude as they interact with each other.

A doctor enters an examining room, preparing to be cared for. A professor wonders how her students will teach her to understand the world in new ways. A soup kitchen volunteer is ready to find her spirit nourished by the person she is serving.

In each encounter of service there comes a choice. We can continue to awkwardly push our skills and expertise at someone or we can remember to take a step back, breathe and say, “Here I am. Meet me, and we will both receive something we could never find on our own.” This perspective is simple, but its implications for the various personal and institutional calls to service we participate in — healing, nurturing, instructing, speaking for — are drastic and disarmingly hopeful.

In my own work as a teacher, writer, and community practitioner, I find that I am most helpful to others when I am most reverent toward what they are offering me. I think this is true because what we are called to give is also what we most fiercely need. A gift is a perfect conspiracy, meant to open us up to the possibility of becoming something new. What is asked of us, then, is simply that we pay attention.

What if we were to see giving not as a specific act but as a practice? A practice is not a general commitment to some sort of ideal state. It is an ongoing recommitment to exploring something we are drawn to but may never fully understand. It is an intention we carry with us — imperfectly, hesitantly perhaps, but devotedly.

Suppose we understand the giving field to be just that, a “field” — a beautiful, expansive space in which to play and to grow things. A place of light and colour and surprise. A place where we can go to un-tame ourselves. As we enter this field, we may find ourselves provoked into acts of re-imagination that startle and delight us with unsuspected possibilities for personal growth and community renewal. \

Warren Nilsson is co-founder with Tana Paddock of Organization Unbound(, a community of practice open to anyone interested in helping social-change organizations increasingly become living expressions of their broader missions. He is pursuing his doctoral research at McGill University where he also teaches courses on sustainability.

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