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I do believe, that in each of us — and in the human experience — is hardwired the joy of giving. And receiving.

Giving is an interesting thing in that in order for a giver to experience giving, there must be a receiver who experiences receiving. At one end of the spectrum, the giving transaction is specific, known and simultaneous, e.g. I give a friend coming down a ladder a hand to help steady herself. At another end, giving is general, unknown and diffused: I write a blog post, someone looks at a subject from a different angle than they’d previously seen, and their own thinking shifts a fraction of a fraction of a degree. I don’t need to know that such a gift was received. It’s diffused, unknown what I’ve given. There is no knowledge or need that anyone has taken what is offered.

Receiving is also an interesting concept. In order to receive, there must be 1) desire for the thing being offered and 2) capacity to receive it. If someone is offering a tasty cold beverage on a hot and dusty day, and I’m thirsty and have a cup, that’s awesome. If they want to give me 20 ounces but I only want 8, and they insist that I take all 20 in order to get the 8; that’s not so great.

In other words — and obviously — giving requires balance with receiving. Yet it’s not so clean and easy in many situations. There’s expectation, need, want, guilt, manipulation and a host of other less-than-wholesome emotions that attach themselves with ease to many transactions between people. Gifts that aren’t wanted. Receiving that has layers of expectation about what is owed built in. Greater-than-thou-ness around giving, but refusal to receive (as if that is a sin). Folks got all kinds of messed-up-ness around giving and receiving. And I can count myself among the many who’ve had challenges here.

One of the aspects of Burning Man that I ever so enjoy is the principle of gifting. 50,000 people co-creare an environment in which giving and receiving is part and parcel of the day. There are two things for sale at Burning Man: 1) ice and 2) coffee (well, and tea).  Beyond that it’s very much about communal effort, radical self-reliance and gifting: Gifting, as in I give you this thing-service-smile with no strings attached, which is distinctly and specifically different than bartering, as in you and I will find a balance point in which what I give, what I receive, what you give, what you receive will be considered equal and fair by both of us,

Imagine, a week in a city in which all transactions are gifts. And the gifting at Burning Man is extensive, robust, luxurious, kind, useful, functional, abundant, artistic, sweet and loads more. My camp, The More Carrots, gifts a farmers market replete with fresh produce, ready-to-eat wholesome goodness and bicycle-powered smoothies. Others provide live music, art cars, solar power, pickle martinis, foot soaks, tours of well-designed kitchens, movies, shade, bike repair … you name it. Volunteers (people outside our camp of 29) helped with our camp build, at our market, making dinner.

Individually, I was gifted jewelry, happy/relaxing-making things, a shower, lots of food, lotions and massages, an application of lip balm, a fiercely kind guide to get me out of the camp (where I was the leader and asked many a question) so that we could explore art on my birthday, and much more.

I gave, too: moisturizing eye drops to people sitting near me at a bar on a dusty day, fresh cut and cold orange slices, a foot massage, a hug, tissues, counsel, directions to the porta-potties down the way. I set up my “refreshing drink” stand on the dustiest of dusty afternoons and offered — in the company of a dear and engaging friend — a cup of refreshment and a bit of TLC for people to move on to their next adventure or destination.

And, of course, I received that which was offered communally: art projects, live music, respite from the sun in some camp or another’s shade structures, and the specific offerings of the many camps I visited and hung out at: the perfect drink  at Golden Cafe on a hot afternoon, a view of the burn from the top of the French Quarter, a ride on Gon Kirin, There’s a flow and rhythm when giving underlies the experience.

Yet gifting, twisted or misunderstood, can create an expectation in which the unguided believe that need=result or desire=obligation. Boo on that.

I’d like to tell a short story of one experience that jarred me momentarily and reminded me of how important it is with any community to help the newly arrived understand the principles and guiding values that make a place/group of people attractive and desirous to the new-comer in the first place. This story is around the complexity and simplicity of the principle of gifting at Burning Man.

Here goes …

I was out one night at a bar called Wanted. It was a Wild West on the Moon-like sort of place, deeper out and away from “the city” … definitely inside the party scene part of “town.” Waiting for a friend to get us a drink at the bar (yes, of course, it was gifted and free), I was dancing when a young man pointed to my Camelback mouthpiece and then to himself; then he made the universal drinking sign of tipping his head back, hands up to his lips as if holding a cup.

Huuunnnhhh!? If there was a movie soundtrack, that would have been the moment you’d heard the screech of a record needle sliding wildly across a record. I stopped and stared at him.

“You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” I inquired. Knowing the answer.


“Yes,” he responded.


“Where’s your water?” I asked him.

Mind you, this was only about 10 pm in the evening, very early for playa time. We were far, far away from the rest of the city and there was a full-on, night-long, fierce dust storm raging.

“Oh, I left it back at camp,” he said, throwing his head back as if this was funny.


“You need your water,” I stated. “You should go back to camp and get some water.”


“I don’t understand why you can’t give me some of yours,” he pleaded. “You have plenty to share.”

I was not amused. Aghast might be a better word to describe how I was feeling.

“You’re asking me to share my water with you? In a desert?” I said. “… When you didn’t pack any of your own?”

He repeated his point about how he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t share with him when I clearly had what he wanted. I did not feel like lecturing him on the 10 principles. Instead, I poured into the lid of a water bottle (an ounce, two at the most) and gave that to him to sip. I encouraged him to see if he could get ice in his drinks tonight and more specifically, suggested he go back to his camp and get his own water.

His journey, his experience … those are his memories to take or forget. For me, It made me pensive about Burning Man, the magic of gifting and how the “magic” happens when people are also prepared (radical self-reliance). Had my gift that night been water, or perhaps had we spoken for awhile, connected, laughed and then he’d asked, I might have been more generous. But my first interaction with him was Gimme. And Gimme and Gifting, they aren’t in the same ball park.

I do believe that each and all of us, whether it’s with a charity, a homeless person, a friend in need, or a stranger whose path we cross … we all intuitively assess whether the situation is one of gifting and receiving or whether there’s a Gimme underneath.

Giving and receiving, the transaction, is a deeply human experience, one that fills and fulfills both the giver and receiver. Gimme, on the other hand, leaves, I believe, both parties emptier than when they started.

May your cup runneth over … All ways. Always. 

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