90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
The Gift of Giving

091223giftscover

It’s the season of giving — and that’s lasted for a reason. First, there’s need. Second, giving makes us feel better. Live better.

Cami Walker found that out the hard way. At 32, just a month after her wedding, she was diagnosed with painful multiple sclerosis. Nothing made her feel better.

Until, from the depth of her pain, she started giving to others. Just little things at first. Then more. For twenty-nine straight days.

And the giving, she says, brought her back. Science says she may be right.

This hour, On Point: in the season of giving, the power of the gift.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

Joining us from Los Angeles is writer Cami Walker. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006. Her new book is called “29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life.” She is the creator of the online community 29-Day Giving Challenge.

Read an excerpt from “29 Gifts.”

With us in our studio is Patricia Rogers, a psychotherapist in private practice. She’s counseled individuals, couples and families for over 20 years.

And joining us from Stony Brook, New York, is Stephen Post. He is director for the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He co-authored the book “Why Good Things Happen to Good People.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Ellen Dibble

    You can access quite a few pages of this book at the Amazon site. This is another writer (like Eric Carle for children’s books, like the Robert B. Parker for detective stories) with experience in marketing, advertising, marketing consulting. The focus is on the interaction, the persuasion, the healthy part of commerce — and of writing. And of giving.
    I’ve had multiple chemical sensitivities that make me live in a very different world, which others can never quite understand, but the real disability I’ve found is my work, which is absolutely nonstop, once you substract the time I’m nonfunctional. The disability is being disconnected through being tied down. It’s not unlike what Cami describes.
    How to become a giver again? A part of the human race? Get a seeing eye person. Get someone who has the complementary set of abilities (separate linkages, background, aspirations, stuck at different points, etc.), and take the time to become an organic unit. I kid you not. For every frustration where I wish I had another 24 hours a day for whole new dimensions to life, there is someone with that time to fill, and the ability to coordinate.
    Whatever they say about marriage creating more than the sum of its parts, in cases of being stranded such as Cami Walker describes, two persons can be worth about twenty times one. No commitment necessary. May this jobs environment promulgate this. The overworked/underpaid with the ragged edges in danger of falling off altogether.
    Gifts have to do with finding out what the other needs, for square one.

  • http://singtocurems.org/ Marion Leeds Carroll

    I was diagnosed with MS over 20 years ago, and have had a fairly mild case… but things got worse a few years back. My major frustration: I’ve always been the person to do things for others, and now I have to let others do things for me. This was painful… until it hit me that if it gave me joy to help others, it must be giving joy to others to help *me.* So I try to think of letting others help me as a sort of gift I can give others.

    Meanwhile, I keep holding my annual Music to Cure MS concert to benefit the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis – visit singtocurems.org to read about it.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I don’t know if Patricia Rogers has encountered this, but the way a gift is received can be a very clear indication of rejection. A person who is sort of roadkill (by disability or job loss?) can be a threat to a family, or to a community. There is a line that gets crossed: too hard to take on board. May I volunteer to do this, which I do very well? No. Why? You wouldn’t stick with it. Where does that come from? I don’t even know you.
    So you ask someone else. Can you arrange that I deploy that skill? Call that agency for me? Yes. We’ll help.
    But someone else notices: acceptance of gifts is sometimes fake, is sometimes not there at all.

  • Thomas mukasa

    Hi Tom,
    Do you not find that you make your program vulnerable to the usual comidification process that I would say necessarily occurs when someone makes a book or a website where the true cause is diluted just because people would like to participate in something ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’? Why I’m not critical of your program, it does seem to me that if you gave hope to other people personally instead of through mass mediums the more genuine idea of the gift from person to person may be possible.

    Thanks

  • eric, concord mass

    Hate to be cynical, Tom, but didn’t you have a guest on recently with quite an opposite view. It was a famous writer with breast cancer who wrote a book about she disagreed with the prevailing view that disease was something you had control over, something you could empower yourself out of.

  • TR

    I’m very glad that Ms. Walker has had such a positive experience, and it doesn’t surprise me that there is a positive biological response to the act of giving (though I would like to know if the Mother Teresa video study was controlled to determine if the immune response was a reaction to seeing the poor state of the people she was helping).

    All that being said, and I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but what does it do to the concept of “giving” if we we approach it from the standpoint that giving derives its value from the benefit it brings o the giver. If I give something away because I expect to reap some sort of biological or karmic reward, am I actually “giving,” or am I buying?

  • John

    Eric, that book is Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ironically, I just bought it yesterday to give as a gift. So far I feel the same.

  • Paul McLean

    The best way to give that I’ve found is through donating blood and platelets. It’s a purely anonymous gift, and quite literally can help someone make it to another day. The need is great. I never feel beter than walking home from the donor centers at Dana Farber and Brigham & Women’s

  • Anke

    Hello Tom-

    this is an interesting topic, especially the results reported by therapists. One clarification would help me:

    Should the gifts be given to individual people (to experience the effect on a specific person)?????

    OR

    Can the gifts be given to a larger cause (like anonymous work for a community, for instance, where the effect is not instantly observable
    to the giver)??????

    Would love to get a psychologists/psychiatrist experience (not individual opinion/anecdote).

    Anke

  • Clare

    Hi Tom,
    My Mom was my inspiration for giving…even when you seemingly do not have a lot to give. My father passed away when I was in HS in the early 70′s, leaving my stay-at-home Mom (the norm for those days) with 6 children to raise and no income. Through the help of family, friends and neighbors in our rural community we made it through. We wore hand-me-downs and pinched our pennies. But, my fondest memories are of my Mom making big batches of soup and putting some in containers and taking it to neighbors – elderly folks almost half a mile away (and, yes, our nearest neighbors were half a mile away). I remember thinking that we didn’t have enough to be giving things away – and she told me there are always people who need our help..no matter how hard things are. And, we help ourselves by helping others. And, again, when I was in teenage angst and feeling sorry for myself, her solution was for me to volunteer and we did. She, personally, would serve in food kitchens on Thanksgiving and Christmas. What Cami has done is, as they say, as old as the hills and I am glad it has helped her.

  • http://www.hiddenmeadowinn.com Joanna

    Can you publish the poem “When I am hungry, send me someone to feed” online or email it to me please? That is very powerful.

    I suffered several years of chronic depression in the 1990′s after major losses in life. One of the keys to recovery for me was staying active helping others as much as possible. Another key was making a list of all my blessings. I was supposed to start with 10, and the list grew to over 100. It helped me regain perspective. Another key was getting a puppy who needed me, who also loved unconditionally. Another key was learning to ask for help (learning humility, meekness, surrendering pride).

  • Bruce Frauman

    At twenty, I was very depressed and anxious about the course of my life. I was told by a therapist to “help somebody”. I did not know how to connect with anyone to offer help. My question is how does one find people to help, especially when depressed and perhaps isolated.

    Since then, one of my goals is to be more humble.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think the 29 days of giving would be especially helpful for MS in that it’s a prescription, a regulation, something that can be “followed.” The recording of it, the obedience, gives a sense of control — up to a point, anyway.
    Other diseases can inflict on you obligations that make you feel owned, routed around like a package. Maybe MS does too.
    Anyway, what Cami reports is a chronic problem but one that struck so quickly, and diagnosed so quickly, that it seems a little different from maybe the norm. I would require wailing time too. Who wouldn’t.

  • Rita Venable

    Hi Tom,

    I think it’s great for people to give in this way and agree with the practice. I do wonder, however, if people that use this for therapy ever get to the point that they do kind things because it is the right thing to do and not because it is good for themselves.

  • Hana

    A wonderful Czech movie (on DVD) we just watch last night dealing with depression, failure, giving, sacrifice, happiness:
    Something like Happiness (by Bohdan Slama)
    from Film Movement (filmmovement.com)
    We highly recommend it!!!

  • Dave

    A timely topic Tom. I’m reminded of an Indian proverb:
    “I used to complain about not having shoes, until I met a man who had no feet”. Happy Holidays.

  • Robin Ryan

    A wonderful children’s book that highlights the happiness that comes from giving is the book “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” which is about a woman who makes quilts and gives them away and teaches the miserable king that his only way to happiness is by giving his belongings away. And with each gift comes a wonderful sense of happiness.

  • mr.independent

    I wish the Senate and congress would give us some real health care reform, in the shape of a real single payer system.

  • John

    Wouldn’t this show have been better scheduled during last week’s annoying pledge drive? Seriously, thanks to everyone who gives to WBUR and NPR.

  • Bruce Frauman

    At twenty, I was very depressed and anxious about the course of my life. I was told by a therapist to “help somebody”. I did not know how to connect with anyone to offer help. My question is how does one find people to help, especially when depressed and perhaps isolated and/or in a more rural area?

    Since then, one of my goals is to be more humble.

  • Shari Thurer

    Sorry to sound like Scrooge, but it is highly naive to argue that giving to others promotes healing. There are many generous folks who suffer health problems despite their generosity.The so-called science is lightweight with flawed instrumentation. I am a big fan of virtue, but in its own right, not for the givers benefit.

  • roxann

    I am from the South American country of Guyana, where poverty was very rampant in the 70s when I was growing up there. However, within my middle-class family I was cultured to always give to the less fortunate. It was not uncommon for my mother to celebrate her birthday by taking a full course meal or desserts to a children’s home for the needy. She said that there was joy in giving and it could eventually bring prosperity to the giver. For me it was part of the process of learning grace! It is therefore very interesting in listening to your program, especially how this simple mondane act that was part of a cultural practice can be seen in an intellectual light, where even the tools of medical science are applied, i.e the application of oxytocin hormone. Great subject though!

  • http://www.peaceabbey.org Lewis Randa

    Hi Tom,

    Received a couple of calls requesting the Prayer that I recited during the program. It is an adaptation of the Prayer of St. Francis by the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa in Japan. It is the creed we recite daily and is of enormous inspiration to everyone at the Life Experience School and The Peace Abbey.

    When I am hungry, send me someone to feed; When I am thirsty, send me someone who needs a drink; When I am cold, send me someone to warm; When I am sad, send me someone to cheer; When I need understanding, send me someone who needs mine; When I need to be looked after, send me someone to care for; When I think only of myself, draw my thoughts to another.

  • Karen Hill

    To all of the “skeptics,” I think that you’re missing the point of this. Someone said and I’m paraphrasing, “if you’re giving in order to make yourself feel better or reap some kind of Karma, isn’t that just buying?” And that person is correct, but the point of this is, and what the guest is saying is that she didn’t expect to get anything out of it but she did. If you give a homeless person five dollars with the expectation that your cold will go away, of course it won’t. But if you do nice things and are genuinly a nice person and think of others more than yourself, then good things will happen to you. And by putting others ahead of yourself, I don’t mean let yourself be a carpet that’s walked over by bad friends and selfish family, but give in ways you wouldn’t normally give. If you see someone being picked on, stand up for that person, or if you see someone abusing an animal, rescue the animal. Giving doesn’t have to be a purposeful thing done out of a consious effort to be a good person. It might have to start out that way if you’re not this type of person, but you’d be surprised at how this can affect your life in a positive way.

    And I don’t think the guest ever said that giving “cured” her disease, only that it significantly helped her pain and eased her general well-being. So the, “it’s naive to argue that giving to others promotes healing” argument can’t really be made here.

    On a side note, if anyone has seen “what the bleep do we know,” or anything regarding the matter, this idea of giving isn’t so far fetched. If your thoughts can change water mollecules, and we’re made up of a lot of water, imagine what our thoughts do to our physical bodies.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Nobody’s posted anything about whether the oxytocin kicks in for the one in 110 (or one in 70 boys?) who are afflicted with autism-spectrum disorders, Asperger’s and so on. A lot of people probably know the answer, but do the scientists? Or is just too gauche to even ask. I think my chemical sensitivities (and heavy metals) sometimes put me out of touch, especially in not having a body or brain that is recording or processing properly. So I have to sort of translate. (Not now; I’ve figured out a few things, but anyway.) It’s like functioning with a migraine headache except the medicine doesn’t work. A healthy person with that same disconnect would have a sort of built-in preoccupation, a sort of physical distraction. I mean, the suffering one would too.
    Between those people with toxicities in their bodies due to the polluted world, and those people with autism-spectrum disorder, it would seem that the role of compassion, empathy, giving, interpersonalism — it’s right at the top of my list of concerns.

  • John

    To all of the “skeptics,” — Why the quotes? Do you doubt we exist?

  • Bruce Frauman

    At twenty, I was very depressed and anxious about the course of my life. I was told by a therapist to “help somebody”. I did not know how to connect with anyone to offer help. My question is how does one find people to help, especially when depressed and perhaps isolated and/or in a more rural area?

    Since then, one of my goals is to be more humble.

    PS
    This did not get though during the show.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Bruce, I’m going to try to post some sort of answer. Wait a sec.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Rural areas have their own dynamics, so..
    I’d say to find somebody to help, the first rule is to “know thyself.” I’d think that was the therapist’s role, to help you uncover that. (Right, blame someone else.) But on the other hand, I’d counter that therapists can’t really do that, that you find out yourself through bouncing off other people (nontherapeutic types, umm, possibly more honest then?? — I mean, not paid to be helpful?).
    So let’s say you have no idea what you’re good at, what you’re interested in — that’s depressing to think about. How can you find a fellow traveler if you don’t have your identity in your sights.
    I’m too old to help. But I found somebody older than myself to help/be helped by, and that was by chance. She knew/knows as well as anyone to cast her net very broadly, keep on the move, keep learning. Statistically, she was increasing the odds. I knew exactly what I wanted, and asked the public library to start a group addressing x, y, and z. They advertised, posted my paragraph here and there, and my person showed up. We met at the library a couple times — a good neutral, safe spot — and then sort of graduated. The library has a web site where anyone can start a group about anything, and they have a few meeting rooms, and calendars. They e-mail to people who sign up all the info about what’s happening.
    I could have asked for a group that was not so targeted when I was younger, less focused. I might have joined another group. There is one that writes and acts out plays. It started with one person with a play that she wanted help with, help thinking about, help doing it.

  • Ellen Dibble

    More rurally, there was a library series on how to raise chickens in your back yard. A group that knits together every week. Doctors asking for a chance to bring people together to speak about ways of avoiding flu — that was a bigger room. I think they now have coffee and snacks available in the main hall that can be eaten in the library. I’ll have to go experience that.

  • DL

    Tom,

    Thanks for giving us this show. I was surprised that you were so reluctant to agree at the end that giving healed Cami…since the entire show seemed to support that POV. I can see from the other comments that many listeners are sceptical. I can hear her message so clearly and it rings true. It’s too bad so many hearts have hardened to the point that they can not hear the truth when it is spoken.

  • David

    Great topic Tom

    Can’t find a way to give today. This sounds silly, but one way I found I could give just about anytime. Is to pick up some litter.It may not sound like much, but just removing some litter is good for the environment your community and very rewarding that you made a difference in a positive way. Just think if just 98% of the population removed the 2% of litter left behind it wouldn’t take much to give ourselves a cleaner and more beautiful environment.

  • Michelle

    While I love the focus of this show, what you’re talking about is common courtesy. Helping someone onto a bus? Buying a homeless man lunch? Tipping a street performer? Those are things I was raised to do in normal life. So maybe the moral of this story is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” or, plainly, “Be nice, be kind, be helpful and good things will come to you.” :)

  • Brett

    On the one hand, it’s interesting to me the way some folks may define karma, as if it is some reciprocal phenomenon instituted by some external force; on the other hand, it is probably semantics in some cases that ostensibly makes one’s belief in karma seem supernatural.

    If one thinks that giving will be helpful as some form of therapy or would open the universe to a cosmic shift in goodwill coming back to him/her before the act, then that notion would be a false one, in my opinion. If one commences an act of giving because of one’s humanity, of one’s empathy and compassion (or just plain thoughfulness) and, later, after the fact, one derives some sense of pleasure and well-being as a result of introspection or in looking at the moment in retrospect, then this would be perhaps the beginning of karma. Especially if the sum of those later feelings changes perception, enhances a positive vibe someone exudes, influences collective behavior in a positive way, and promotes a whole array of positive energy.

    I’ve noticed that if someone is negative all the time he/she will attract a kind of negative energy that permeates all energy around him/her; likewise, the opposite appears to be true. If what we sense around us is a perception and if those perceptions can influence our thought processes, body chemistry, actions, causal actions by others in response to those actions, then acts of kindness can have a lot of power in influencing our reality, both individually and collectively.

    It almost seems a paradox to give without expectation or sense of outcome or personal gain (a kind of Zen approach), yet find feelings of self-satisfaction in the act of giving reinforcing enough to promote more acts of such giving. Perhaps this is complementarity more so than paradox, though?

    I believe that when we give, for most of us, there is an element of altruism; there is also an element that makes us feel good and therefore we want to repeat the act. Both aspects of giving seem within the realm of what we consider our humanity.

  • Jana

    I really liked Cami and how she talked about her book, although I was extremely disappointed when the welcoming of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)and other 12-Step programs were mentioned during the commentary. AA to many people, including myself, represents socialized and government backed brainwashing and has had a lot of abuses and very little true and lasting results for several decades now. AA continues and perpetuates the cyle of institutuionalized “powerlessness” that we have in this country today and only feeds and exacerbates most people’s already existent problems.

  • gina

    Count me as another skeptic.

    Like many other auto-immune diseases, MS is often characterized by sudden, unexplained remissions – and exacerbations. Since she ascribes her remission to her “29 days of giving”, I wonder what explanation Ms. Walker will come up with if her symptoms return?

    It also seems rather odd to characterize holding a door open for someone or exchanging pleasantries with a stranger as bestowing a “gift” upon them. Isn’t that basic civility?

    Ms. Walker’s story was recently given similar adulatory coverage in the New York Times, but many commenting readers were more critical.
    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/a-prescription-for-giving/

  • Ali Manning

    This was a fabulous show today and I listed to it twice. But I must say I was disappointed when I went to the 29gifts.org website and found that it was a for-profit entity complete with its own gift boutique. This struck me as very tacky!

  • Patricia Herlevi

    hello Tom, Cami and Patricia,

    Thanks for this fabulous and inspiring interview.

    I was feeling down in the dumps about Copenhagen and global warming and then I listened to this show.

    While I use discernment in giving to others, I believe that compassionate acts do boost the immune system and allow us to bond to others.

    But don’t just stop with giving to humans, do as Saint Francis and Clare of Assisi did and extend your compassion to non-humans too, including plants, including this entire planet.

    Saint Francis once kissed a leper, his greatest fear. Not that I would ask anyone to do that. He also picked the earth worms that were in the road and placed them in a safe place so that they would not get trampled upon.

    Anonymous giving works best. I heard of people leaving cash in various places on purpose, like dropping it at grocery stores and other public places.

    I am also reminded of the French film, “Amelie”.

  • http://choosingtransformationnow.com/ Emily H Page

    I have already started my gifts… and… even tho i do do service in many ways… i got a big boost from the first “intentional” of 29+ gifts!

    this was sooo… inspiring … thank you for doing the show and Cami, thank you for doing the book and the website. As soon as I have cleared the holiday “clutter” i am going to put a post about this on my blog…

  • Ellen Weinstock

    I agree with the commenters who say that this is pretty obvious stuff and, as author Stephen Post says on the show, well-documented scientifically. But obviously not everyone in our society has learned it, and/or not everyone who has learned it remembers it all of the time. So, thanks for the reminder, On Point Radio!!!

  • Keith Al in St. Louis

    Sherry Thurer writes: >>> Sorry to sound like Scrooge, but it is highly naive to argue that giving to others promotes healing. There are many generous folks who suffer health problems despite their generosity. The so-called science is lightweight with flawed instrumentation. I am a big fan of virtue, but in its own right, not for the givers benefit. <<<

    Hey no apology necessary. I, for one, agree and don't hear a Scrooge in your words. I have to take Tom's words metaphorically, i.e., his repeated "if you're hungry feed another." If I'm starving my hope is that I'll share my bread with my fellow man, irregardless of his/her status. Perhaps my favorite metaphor is the airbags that get dropped when there's a decline in air cabin pressure: put the oxygen mask on one's self first; then help the one seated next to you.

  • http://www.wheelchairindia.com/ wheelchairs

    I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I’ll love to read your next post too.

    Wheelchairs

ONPOINT
TODAY
Apr 24, 2014
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, talks with Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Covina at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, April 21, 2014. Hernandez proposed a constitutional amendment that would ask voters to again allow public colleges to use race and ethnicity when considering college applicants. The proposal stalled this year after backlash from Asian Americans. (AP)

California as Exhibit A for what happens when a state bans affirmative action in college admissions. We’ll look at race, college and California.

Apr 24, 2014
A Buddhist monk lights the funeral pyre of Nepalese mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, during his funeral ceremony in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 21, 2014.  (AP)

A Sherpa boycott on Everest after a deadly avalanche. We’ll look at climbing, culture, life, death and money at the top of the world.

RECENT
SHOWS
Apr 23, 2014
Attendees of the 2013 Argentina International Coaching Federation meet for networking and coaching training. (ICF)

The booming business of life coaches. Everybody seems to have one these days. Therapists are feeling the pinch. We look at the life coach craze.

 
Apr 23, 2014
In this Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, file photo, Chet Kanojia, founder and CEO of Aereo, Inc., shows a tablet displaying his company's technology, in New York. Aereo is one of several startups created to deliver traditional media over the Internet without licensing agreements. (AP)

The Supreme Court looks at Aereo, the little startup that could cut your cable cord and up-end TV as we’ve known it. We look at the battle. Plus: a state ban on affirmative action in college admissions is upheld. We’ll examine the implications.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
The Week In Seven Soundbites: April 18, 2014
Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Holy week with an unholy shooter. South Koreans scramble to save hundreds. Putin plays to the crowd in questioning. Seven days gave us seven sounds.

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: April 18, 2014
Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Space moon oceans, Gabriel García Márquez and the problems with depressing weeks in the news. Also: important / unnecessary infographics that help explain everyone’s favorite 1980′s power ballad.

More »
Comment
 
Some Tools And Tricks For College Financial Aid
Thursday, Apr 17, 2014

Some helpful links and tools for navigating FAFSA and other college financial aid tools.

More »
Comment