Start With Giving

Daniel Wordsworth
Jul 8, 2019 · 8 min read

“Being human means having a gift. And it is the giving of this gift that makes both the village and the person whole.”

“The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to them — it cannot fail…”– Walt Whitman

“Just as the rivers we see are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased or scarcely released.” — Albert Schweitzer

International humanitarian organizations have lost sight of an essential truth: we exist to give, not to receive.

We have lived and worked in places of scarcity for so long that we have started to believe that we cannot give to those in need without ourselves first receiving. Caught in a climate of fear, confronted by problems that seem overwhelming, and questioning our own compassion, we have simply lost sight of the abundance that lies within us.

What Is It to Be Human?

Let me start with a story — a story that I traveled the world to find.

Several years back, I wanted to find a simple story to explain why we do the kind of work we do in places like Somalia, Darfur and El Salvador.

I wanted a story to tell a father in a poor community why it was so important to spend what little he has on allowing his daughter to go to school. I wanted a story to tell a group of students in Minneapolis about why what happens in Africa is so important. I wanted a story to tell our staff why respect and human dignity are at the centre of what we do.

But how does one find a story that works at all levels — something that would resonate with rich and poor, old and young, men and women, East and West?

I decided to go to the core of who we are — not as Americans or Africans, but as humans.

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda

I traveled the world to speak to people who grapple with the fundamentals of what it means to be a human being. I heard the wisdom of traditional story tellers in Brazil and Guatemala. I spoke to gurus in India. I listened to a Native American elder and a Shaman from West Africa. I asked each of them a single question: “What is it to be a human?”

And here is what I learned.

The Wonder of Being Human

First — Being a human is to be wondrous. We all understand this in different ways: for some it means having a soul, for others an eternal spirit, or to be made of the atoms of stars. We each describe it in different ways but we understand the sense of awe that comes with being human.

I think of our capacity for imagination and thought. Only a few decades ago, six thousand languages existed around the world. Languages are more than different vocabularies; they are different worldviews. Languages are the hundreds of words that a community in the Amazon uses to describe the plants around them; they are the myths and stories of a thousand cultures passed down through generations; they are a library full of thousands of Aesop’s fables, told a thousand different ways.

I think of our amazing desire to be better and to reach higher. We remember the epic struggle to put a man on the moon, and the fact that — when that day arrived — the world watched, eyes raised in amazement and pride: not American pride, but the pride of mankind, our giant leap forward.

I think of our capacity for both horror and great courage. To quote Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor — “We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

And what was the second thing?

We Each Have a Gift

Second — Each person comes into this world with a gift: something unique to offer their community. People must understand their gift, and they must share it. And our communities — our neighborhoods and our world — must see the gift that each person holds within him or her. If this gift is never seen or given, then both the person and the community have been robbed of what is most important.

So, the two things:

Being a human is a wondrous thing…and more than that… each person is a thing of wonder.

Being a human means having a gift…and more than that…it is the giving of this gift that makes both the village and the person whole.

Terrible Tragedy & Great Opportunity

So, what does this revelation about being human say of our work as humanitarians? And what does it say of the things that happen in places like Darfur, Congo and Somalia? I see it in terms of both terrible tragedy and great opportunity.

What do I mean by terrible tragedy?

I remember the feeling I had when the Taliban dynamited the thousand-year-old Buddha statues of Bamyan in Afghanistan, the feeling I had when Iraq’s national museum was looted after the fall of Baghdad. I have walked through burned villages, empty tukuls, villages made silent, emptied of life and future. I once sat with mothers with sick children in a camp in Sierra Leone, only to return the next day, to find mothers alone. We were a day too late.

Tragedy is also the cruelty we deal unto others. When talking to an old man in a village in Africa and asking him what it was like to be poor, he said, “It is like this: in our village we hold community meetings to discuss our problems and what we should do. Sometimes I stand up to speak and the others in the room all shout, ‘Sit down old man, you are one of the poor ones, you have nothing to say to us’”.

In Bolivia, two women I spoke with said being poor was to be a ghost: “We live in this village, in this country, in this world, we are here, we speak, yet no one sees us, no one hears us. We are like ghosts.”

In Mexico, speaking with people from the “caravan” moving from Honduras, one man — upon hearing that the U.S. had deployed an army to stop them — said, “I don’t know why we are causing all this trouble: we are just little people, we only need a small piece of earth.”

What is it to be a refugee; it is to be denied your home, your field, your place in the world and then to be put in camps on empty barren fields and left, forgotten — or worse, seen as a plague in your new place, and to be described as a problem requiring a durable solution? What if you had come on a long journey, with a gift to offer and yet, when you stand, the gift is scorned and your chance to be fully human robbed from you?

Great Opportunity

Yet, in our humanity lies agreat opportunity.

Working in the humanitarian field, I know that, while we work in what many consider the most dire situations in the world, we work in the presence of wonder. The refugees with whom we work are wondrous human beings: mothers and fathers who face down horrors to protect their children, communities who come together to recover, rebuild and return to their homes. We must always remember that refugees are precious, as all humans are: we are creatures of wonder.

I have hope, because I know that a vast river of goodwill exists in the world and that people truly do want to contribute and make a difference. Albert Schweitzer says “Just as the rivers we see are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased or scarcely released.”

After thirty years of witnessing some of the worst things that people have done to each other, from El Salvador, through Sierra Leone to Somalia, the surest thing I have learned is that our power to do good far outweighs the bad that exists in the world. We are all united by our best, highest commonality: that we are all human beings aware of the wonder within us all. And from that commonality comes an overwhelming desire of people to give from the abundance we all have within us… and to give freely.

Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, Uganda

Give Freely

We put this to the test with our own people — people risking their lives every day, those working in Mogadishu, Quetta, in the jungles of Myanmar and South Sudan. We asked them, on a purely voluntary basis, to share in what simple way would they make refugees feel joyful, valued and powerful.

This is where I doubted. Our people are stretched thin, and we were asking them to do even more. I should have known better.

In that first year, 2013, we received 120 ideas from our teams and refugees around the world. That has grown to 2,700 ideas in 2018. Bernard, one of our team in Uganda, when reflecting on the outpouring of ideas from every corner of our organization said “We may not be rich in money, but we are certainly rich in people and ideas!”

So at Alight, we start with giving.

We give wholeheartedly of ourselves. We are willing to go the extra mile. We give people our belief in them. We give each other the benefit of the doubt, and a chance. Because we believe that when we expect the best of someone, they not only live up to that expectation, but surpass it.

And you would look within yourself to find the gift that you are abundant in, and you would always be willing to see it in another.

At the beginning of this article I said that the forgotten truth within organizations like ours is that we exist to give not receive. But it is not just organizations — it is us, as humans.

We each exist to give not receive. But the trouble is we think we cannot give without first receiving. We have been told of our own smallness and scarcity for so long we have lost sight of the abundance that already lies within us.

The most powerful realization each of us can have is the realization of our own worth — our great wonder. The mystery is that this can only be truly realized when we freely give to another.

So the provocation — what if you believed you already have enough, enough to overflowing?

You would always start with giving.

(This is the first in a seven-part series on the guiding values of Alight - that unite us all, that drive how we work and how we interact with the people we serve.)

Becoming Alight

As humanitarians, we hold a very big promise. And, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we will fulfill our promise. Through different voices, we’re sharing the values that unite us all, that drive how we work and interact with the people we serve.

Daniel Wordsworth

Written by

CEO of Alight (formerly American Refugee Committee). Pioneering a new kind of human institution. Opinions are my own.

Becoming Alight

As humanitarians, we hold a very big promise. And, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we will fulfill our promise. Through different voices, we’re sharing the values that unite us all, that drive how we work and interact with the people we serve.

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