Some Food We Could Not Eat

Every Monday the High Calling Blogs Book Club will be posting on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

The heart of this book—if I am grasping it correctly–seems to be our society’s struggle with placing value—tangible and intangible—on artists, or those who create in any fashion. There is also the flipside of this, as Sam Van Eman hints at in his invitation to the book discussion: how do we find art in the work we do for a living?

Not consciously considered but frequently felt in this household: the economy of the Gift.

By gift, we mean many things. It may be something material, that we can hold in our hands. It may be a “gift of the inner world” as Hyde so delicately terms it.

A gift, he says, “…is a thing we do not get by our own efforts.” And thus, rightly so can describe our talents or aptitudes.

So what happens to these types of “gifts” when we give them away?

In my mother-role, I constantly pass intangibles along to my children.

As a writer, I rarely get paid for these words I throw out there.

As a professional, does my paycheck make the gifts I give in this role more valuable than the others?

What is the impact of a gift that passes out of my sight—no return evident as it “drifts in lacy jags above the flame”?

Hyde lays the foundation for exploration of these concepts by taking us to the Massim peoples of the South Sea islands near the eastern tip of New Guinea. These tribal peoples have a tradition, known as the Kula ring, of passing armshells and necklaces from household to household, island to island as a great circle of gift exchange.

This gift culture is accompanied by many understood rules that govern the continual movement of the items. In these unspoken rules is the understanding that a true gift is something that is meant to be “used up, consumed, eaten”. To hoard a gift, or use it to further one’s wealth in some fashion, is a breach of social norms.

Therefore, when the armshells and necklaces are exchanged, it is customary for the one giving to ‘toss them on the ground and say, “Here, some food we could not eat.”’

Interesting, no?

In this fashion, the gift is meant for enjoyment of the recipient, who then later passes the gifts on to another for their enjoyment.

This type of giving economy differs substantially from that of the capitalism we reside in.

This discussion took me around and around…

Filled me with desire to create “art for art’s sake” and pass along gifts willy nilly.

Hyde makes many good points from this launchpad of the gift economy.

One that really struck a chord with me is this idea that the Kula gift exchange moves in a circle. The armshells and necklaces move continuously around the islands in a wide ring. Hyde points out that, in this course, “…as the gift passes out of sight it cannot be manipulated by one man or one pair of gift partners. When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”

While I do not pass out armshells and shell necklaces, I frequently offer up gifts in faith. In my passing on of the gift, God completes the archipelago.

In faith, I trust the spirit of the gift to circle around and move back to me, blessing me in its return.

Curious to see where Hyde takes this discussion in chapter two, but already, my spirit is renewed by his thoughts. Too often, when I lose sight of the gifts I bestow—when they turn that corner and enter into the unseen—I lose my faith that they are received with joy…that I will see the fruit of the gift. Hyde reminds me of the Great Circle, and the purpose in the giving.


  1. says

    I particularly like the question of what happens once the gift leaves our hands. We no longer control, yes? Still, it retains something of our soul, somehow.

    Too, I thought this morning about the gifts I give as Mother… no monetary pay involved, sometimes little acknowledgment. Do the gifts come full circle? I suppose they do, but who knows how or when or even if in my generation. And so, yes, it takes no little faith to give…

  2. says

    You offered a poetry giveaway. I entered. You drew my name. The books arrived. What a gift! My son and I take blessing after blessing from the pages when we read, alone and together. Delightful words dance before our eyes, indeed.

    Do not be deceived “gift-giver.” For it is the grace & kindness & especially the wisps of love we hold tightest each time the pages turn. And that is the beauty of a gift. If given with God at the heart and love on the mind and a prayer on the mouth, then and only then, does the giver gift part of Him!


  3. says

    Dear Laura~

    One of my favorite Hebrew words (out of the five that I know) is NaTan the word for give. It is a palindrome, meaning it reads the same backward or forward.

    Quoting from the book Buried Treasure by Lapin:

    “No matter from which end you view this word, the effect is identical. This indicates that in giving, we also receive. By handing you a gift, I receive as much gratification and benefit as you do by accepting it from me. However, the motivation for giving can never be to elicit gratitude or love. Giving makes the recipient love more than it makes the recipient love the giver. Bringing a sacrifice to God helped to make the ancient Israelite love his God.”

    God demonstrated the ultimate love by giving His Son for us.

    Thank you for sharing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *