Giving back


Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Common knowledge suggests that every reward or gain comes with a commensurate sacrifice. Is that equation accurate in your experience?” Theatre director Rachel Ditor was inviting me to take part in a discussion about the notion of sacrifice that she was conducting in the pages of transmissions, a little magazine that her theatre company produced. She suggested I might consider the idea of sacrifice in terms of my career as an author of books on Canadian dance, as an assessor and former board member of the Canada Council for the Arts and as the President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

I was intrigued by the question. It was something I’d never given much serious thought to. Why do I do this stuff? Perhaps because when I was young I thought I heard in the wind and saw in the natural world something of the essence of what life was about: freedom, openness, opportunity for all, decency among creatures, justice and equality and lack of want—things we all know are right, but let ourselves be persuaded away from. Because I wanted to do what I could to make those ideals real.

The grounds for that kind of thinking—not really a conscious thinking, more a set of principles, if that’s not too definite a term, that lay somewhere deep in my being, motivators of the way I was and the way I thought—the grounds for all that were laid by my activist father, I would say. Experience strengthened the roots. And if I sense it imperfectly and infrequently now, I can hardly deny the effect it has had.

So my first response to the question was: If what you are doing feels like sacrifice, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. That’s a privileged position to take, I realize, but it comes to the heart of the question.

I wrote books about dance, for example, because dance is a passion of mine and I wanted to (a) share that passion with other people, and (b) make sure that something endures from that all-too-evanescent artform. Writing dance books doesn’t make you rich, so I suppose some people might call that a sacrifice. I could certainly have used my talents as a writer far more lucratively: perhaps write thrillers, or movie scripts, or pornography, maybe even all three together, and become fat and rich and smoke cigars.

I wrote many dozens of dance-company assessments for the Canada Council, I served doggedly on its juries and spent six years on its board of directors during some of its most challenging crises, and in my UNESCO hat I trotted around the world trying to help to find ways to come to terms with some of the most vexing issues facing human society. Some of those activities involved modest honorariums, but the unpaid time invested amounted to many thousands of hours, and I could certainly have used that time more lucratively: perhaps have been a day-trader on the Toronto Venture Exchange, or a money-launderer, or a company lawyer, or maybe all three, and become bronzed and buffed and travel the world on a well-staffed yacht instead of in row 43 in economy.

But that isn’t even an issue. You follow your bliss, as the revered Mr. Campbell puts it, and it may not pay off in material terms but so what? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in a materialist’s philosophy. How do you mention the soul, in such a cynical and ironic age, and keep a straight face? It’s hard, yet it’s at the essence of what we speak of here. As Plato and his pals will tell you, goodness and beauty have no regard for us, but if we give our attention to them, there’s a chance that we can internalize their influence into moral improvement that will make us better citizens.

Let’s not get silly about this. I never wanted to be filthy rich, though I did know enough about growing up in tight circumstances to hope to make a reasonably comfortable life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that. I always had the cushion of a job I enjoyed, and that allowed me to give some of my interest and energies to things like the Canada Council and UNESCO.

That word “allowed” is important. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that everyone has an obligation to do these things. For many of us, putting the kids through school, paying off the mortgage, putting food on the table is obligation enough. Often the act of making a life entails efforts more heroic than any social contributions those more fortunately placed might make.

At the memorial service for John Juliani, Chief Dan George’s son Leonard talked about the belief of aboriginal people that you grow by giving—the more you give, the more you receive, perhaps not materially but as a fulfilled human being. You can see that belief at work in practical terms in the ceremony of the potlatch.

In our Eurocentric, Western world we’re conditioned to think about giving and getting in material terms, so inevitably the idea of sacrifice becomes confused with the sense of loss, and thus with recompense. Biblical fathers sacrificed their children to win the favours of their God. The trouble with this concept of sacrifice is that it comes with unspoken implications of resentment: I gave up something I valued. It has a sour taste. Sharing is another term for sacrifice, and a far better one.

Is there such a thing as selfless giving? The ethical philosophers will tell you that altruism is linked with self-interest. We do nothing for nothing. Pure generosity does not exist in human nature (some of them say) because it goes against the notion of individual survival. What we call “love of mankind” is nothing more than an investment in social stability. Even the aboriginal who paupers himself at the potlatch enriches his reputation and his standing in his society.

Maybe so. But I do feel that anyone who has the chance can do a lot worse than contribute to what we might call (and I know it’s another sticky term) the common good:  that is, to work toward a society that offers human individuals the chance to realize their full potential in a climate of safety, dignity, freedom, justice and lack of want. To live and act with a good heart.

Goodness knows, I don’t pretend that what I did has moved us very far in those elevated directions. Sometimes I wonder if those endless meetings achieved very much at all. But the idealist in me continues to hope that the work I did (and do) to advocate creative engagement and cultural distinctiveness helps in some small way to foster the imagination, encourage boldness and build a better understanding of the diversity of humanity and what that means in terms of being a good neighbour, a decent and fulfilled human being.

I have no way of measuring that, other than by the purely personal benefits these so-called sacrifices have brought me. Yes (to try to answer the original question), yes, perhaps volunteerism of this kind means we give something up, something we will never know, the thing that lay at the end of the path that Robert Frost didn’t take.

But the equation shouldn’t be concerned with cost, because that way resentment lies. It’s about the benefits, which are immense. The people and places I’ve been fortunate to come to know, the ideas I’ve explored through the avenues of other people’s minds, the insights I’ve been shown by books and plays and pictures and dances … the riches are ceaselessly surprising and, in their ability to refresh and invigorate the spirit, far beyond any notion of sacrifice.


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