No matter how much we might rail against the obscene consumerism of the Christmas season, most of us are no doubt purchasing some holiday gifts to present to people we care about. And of course, that’s fine and wonderful. But most of the gifts that we will exchange under the tree, at neighborhood get-togethers and at office parties will be individual—for our family, friends, co-workers. And, again, that’s fine and wonderful.
In this spirit of giving, many will also no doubt seek out opportunities to give something to the community. It might be canned goods for the food pantry, coats for kids, toys for families in need, a check to a nonprofit organization that is meaningful to us or volunteer time to serve a holiday meal for those who have little. And, again, that’s fine and wonderful.
Yet many of our Christmas offerings to the community are isolated gestures, presented when generalized gift-giving fills the air, reminding us of the plight of others. Often, the impulse for such gifts is people feeling that they need to “give back to the community.” These gestures are of course welcome, but they do grow out of an individualistic sensibility, a kind of quid pro quo—“This community has given so much to me, so now I must make a return gesture of my own.”
These community gifts are perfectly fine. But they are not the gifts that define, strengthen, and enrich community to the fullest. The latter gifts are part of what retired Iowa State University sociologists Cornelia and Jan Flora in their essay “Creating Social Capital” call “horizontal social capital,” which are “egalitarian forms of reciprocity.” In the deepest sense of community, the Floras say that “each person in the community is seen as capable of providing something of value to any other member of the community … ‘gifts’ to all.”
“Gifts to all” is a fundamental, ongoing practice of community, not just a gesture or two at holiday time. This idea resonates with write Wendell Berry’s definition of community “membership.” In his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community,” Berry says that, unlike being part of a “public,” which emphasizes the equality and autonomy of the individual, being part of a community involves membership, which assumes mutual support in service to each other. A community member, Berry says, will “understand her or his life in terms of membership and service.” Individuals within a public bear no obligation to others, no assumption of sharing “gifts for all,” the very essence of the Floras’ horizontal social capital and thus the very essence of community.
So we must be more than “residents” of a community, occasionally deigning to “give back.” We must be members of our community, rooted together in our obligations to each other, sharing our gifts in service to one another as the essential character of who and what we are as people gathered together in this place.
So at this Christmastide, as the Muzak carols grow louder at the mall, as the discounts grow deeper at Target, as many thankfully choose to patronize local businesses for the purchase of their presents and as many graciously choose to give some time or treasure to a charity, the more important gift to think about may be your membership in our community: your ongoing contributions to the well-being of all of those living in common in this place, given because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Those gifts might be being the person who always picks up litter on the sidewalk, who shovels snow from his or her elderly neighbor’s walk without being asked or expected to, who regularly volunteers to clean the cages at the animal shelter, who goes every week or month to that local board or commission he or she belongs to, who meets with an at-risk child after school every week to read together, who regularly gives his or her utmost compassion to those who are dying in hospice or who just gives a darn about what happens in our town and shows up to make it better.
Membership is the spirit of giving that is the lifeblood of our community, and perhaps it should suffuse even more of the spirit of the holidays we celebrate at this time of year.
Thomas Dean tries to be a good member of the Iowa City community.