It’s not a gift if it’s forced on you

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Kalyan Banerjee, current president of Rotary International, will be visiting South Africa next week. He’s a remarkable human being and I could devote weeks on end expounding on some of what he has done, but those are tales for another day. Today, I’m going to repeat a tale he tells in a blog last month.

In 1885, the London Times ran a series of editorials honouring the 100th birthday of Sir Moses Montefiore, the British financier and philanthropist knighted by Queen Victoria. The editorials commented on his honesty, his generosity, and his willingness to come to the aid of anyone in need.

Someone once asked Sir Moses, one of the wealthiest men of his era, how much he was worth. In the face of such an ill-mannered inquiry, he merely paused for a moment’s reflection before naming a figure – one that fell far short of his questioner’s expectations. Naturally, it was met with an objection; surely he must be worth 10 times as much!

Sir Moses merely smiled. “Young man,” he replied, “you didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year, and that is the number I gave you. You see, in life we are worth only what we are willing to share with others.”

When we calculate our own worth, do we think about it in terms of what we have, or how we use it? When we say that all human beings are of equal worth, do our actions follow our words?

These words, for some reason, came to my mind when I found myself in a brief interchange on twitter with an erstwhile cabinet minister turned chief conveyer of bad news to Julius Malema. Here’s how that went:

@Derek_Hanekom: “In case you didn't know, today is exactly 44 years since the first human heart transplant was performed by Prof Chris Barnard in Cape Town”

@kanthanpillay: “@Derek_Hanekom I thought ANC revisionist doctrine currently attributes that achievement to Barnard's gardener?”

@Derek_Hanekom: “@kanthanpillay Crude! Be grateful for the opportunities you've had, & accept that many gardeners could have been surgeons given opportunity”

@kanthanpillay “@Derek_Hanekom I would probably have been a surgeon had I not been expelled in the 1980 boycotts. Don't preach to me about gratitude.”

A few minutes after I typed those words, I found myself musing over what exactly had gotten me so irritated over Hanekom’s words and why Banerjee’s words had sprung to mind in response. The answer is somewhat complicated.

Firstly, there’s the notion that one should be grateful for the fact that one is not born into less fortunate circumstances. I find this ridiculous because it implies a corollary that one should be resentful about the fact that one is not born into more fortunate circumstances. More importantly, gratitude can only be extended when one has a choice as to whether or not one receives a gift. If a gift is forced upon you, it’s not a gift.

Secondly, there’s the notion that many of us fail in life because we have been denied opportunities. I find this ridiculous because the best among us as human beings are those who have transcended their opportunities and gone on to greater things while there are many born to wealth who amount to nothing.

Thirdly, there are both surgeons and gardeners who by Banerjee’s standard either add value to this world or are worthless.

So next time a politician disingenuously suggests you be grateful for what you have, remember that he does not give you gifts. All that he dispenses has been taken from those who work, after his salary has been taken care of. If the things he accomplishes would have been done no matter who was in his position, he has added no value to this world.