My favorite marketing campaign over the holidays was Sweetgreen’s clever play on presents.
Accompanying this was a promotion: bring a friend and his/her meal would be on the house. Business-savvy move, since most fast healthy chain consumers are probably dining alone.
Beyond the benefit to Sweetgreen’s bottom line, there’s immense value in the social capital this taps into: an age-old desire to break bread with others.
This got me thinking, now that the ‘season of giving’ is over, what if we continue to give simply by being present?
Easier said than done. Time is a valuable resource, and surely it’s a lot easier to gift someone a $50 gift certificate then to expend 2 hours of time with them. Think of all the other things we could be doing!
In some ways, money has become a subordinate currency to time: a band-aid solution to a lack of time. “Sorry I can’t be PRESENT but here’s a cool thing. See ya later!”
Which is why attention may be the greatest gift we can give, no matter the season.
I’m not trying to be self-righteous. Presents – the materialistic kind – are wonderful things and I love receiving them. It’s when they become our sole focus that perspective gets warped. How many times have you been asked, “What did you get for [Christmas/birthday/Valentine’s Day/insert consumer insert holiday name]?” as if receiving a present is a given.
Even in the land of charitable giving, undue emphasis is sometimes placed on material exchange or donations. When people asked what my short-term mission team did in Mumbai, by default I ticked off the gifts we brought: books, supplies, money, food, a computer, and a motorcycle for a pastor in the slums. Never mind that we also taught Bible Study, financial literacy classes, and held devotionals. But by lauding our funds and gifts, I (unintentionally) perpetuated the notion that short-term missions are non-committal, swooping in and plopping their gifts like Santa Clause. What happens to Santa at the end of the night? He returns to a distant faraway land never to be seen for another year.
Presents can bring tremendous value. But they can also distract, absolving us of a responsibility to be truly involved in the lives of others.
If the value of a mission trip lies not in its material gifts, where then does it come from? Here’s what I believe: the benefit of giving a week of your time to fly across the world and partner with vulnerable populations in less explicit and more implicit. It sends a message. A message that the poor, sick, and needy are not forgotten. A message that they are loved. Most of all, a message that they are worth. our. time.
Time is the real value. It’s not the books, the computer, or even the motorcycle we gifted to a pastor to ease his travel to and from the various slum communities (though it’s pretty badass).
Time spent listening, empathizing, and seeing beyond what a rigid caste system deems as untouchable (and therefore, unworthy) is both a palpable and impalpable gift. You can’t package it into a pretty box, but you feel its impact. This doesn’t just exist in the third word. Think about what our aging parents would prefer: a perfectly-wrapped present, or our full and devoted presence (sans buzzing phones – scarce commodity!).
As we return to our post-holiday routine, there will continue to be multiple distractions, obligations, and stressors fighting for our attention. The best we can do is intentionally focus our attention on the things that matter: our friends, spouses, parents, children, or whatever it is we value most.
In a world where attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, it’s as simple – and difficult – as that.
3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices. The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.
When I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:
“I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.
Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.”
In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.
In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.
It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.
I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.
And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”. Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.
I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.
I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.
Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.
So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.
I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.
I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.