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Learning How to Accept Gifts: a review of Lisa Dempster’s travel memoir “Neon Pilgrim”

Book cover of Neon Pilgrim.

Gifts are complicated things. The simple premise of giving someone something they need, love, or want is what actually complicates the definition of a gift. Gifts, before anything else, function like a contract that requires the exchange of goods and/or services until someone dies, or decides to break off the relationship with the gift giver. There is always payback in the form of another gift. Now whilst that might seem like the Ebeneezer Scrooge definition of gift giving, there is some harsh veracity behind it.

sheldon quote
I am not the biggest Sheldon fan, but he has a point…

When we are given gifts we are usually extremely happy that the person thought to give us something, whatever the occasion. Although, sometimes you get a pair of socks or another scented candle that you absolutely do not want or need, so you add it to that dark box in the cupboard with all of your other socks and candles. Either way, the rule is… Receive a gift, return at a later with another gift. Simple reciprocity.

There seems to be an anxiety around gifts. The constant need to make sure that we return the favour; the constant need to make sure that our gifts are of the same monetary value as the gifts we receive; and the constant need to make sure that our gifts are well thought out and ALWAYS the perfect gift for that person… When we cannot return the favour and give someone a gift there is a real feeling of failure, shame, stress, and worry. If we do not repay a gift, we are horrible people. However, what if the way we think about gift giving is all wrong? What if we just gave gifts and stopped at that. What if our contemporary understanding of gifts meant that we did not need to reciprocate every. single. time?

Lisa Dempster’s travel memoir is about her 1,200km trip on the Henro Michi, a Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan that visits 88 Buddhist temples and traverses mountains, highways, coastlines, and everything in between. Dempster says that she took the journey after feeling stuck in her life back in Australia. She was depressed, anxious, overweight, unhappy, and trapped in a life that she had made for herself and yet did not know how she got there. She chose Japan because she went on exchange there when she was in high school, which was also the same time she first learned about the Henro Michi. Almost on a whim, she decides she needs to do the pilgrimage in the hopes that she can discover who she is and to heal her head and heart.

There are many ways to do the Henro Michi and Dempster decides to do rough. She sleeps in parks and on the side of mountain trails. She occasionally sleeps in BnBs and the odd cheap hotel when she needs a bath and a soft bed. Henros, or pilgrims, wear a white vest so they can be differentiated from non-pilgrims and also (rather morbidly) if they die on the trail they can be buried where they fall. Along the way Dempster, like other henros, receives settai, or gifts. The gifts are usually food, drinks, money, lucky charms, a night in a hotel, a foot massage, or even a lift to a nearby BnB. The only thing the henro is supposed to do in return for the settai is bestow the gift-giver with a name slip: a piece of paper or ribbon (the more times you do the Henro Michi, the colour and quality of your name slip changes) that has your name on it. It is supposed to be bring luck and good karma and is a way of thanking the person for giving you a gift. Throughout Dempster’s journey, she struggles with the awkwardness of receiving gifts that she cannot repay with the same value. When people let her stay in their BnBs for free, or give her food and drink for her journey, she can only give them a small white piece of paper with her name on it. Hardly an equivalent gift in our Western understanding of gift giving and receiving. Yet, that is all that is required.

The humility of receiving gifts that we cannot repay is a beautiful thing. I also think it forces us to focus on the act of giving for the simple sake of giving. Whilst one could argue that the giver receives good luck and karma for giving the gift (so nothing is purely altruistic), however, karma, luck, good vibes, or however you want to call it cannot be quantified in the way that money and objects can be. It is a spiritual currency (for believers and non-believers alike) that nourishes who we are as people.

I’ve been poor for a long time in my life. My family grew up in government housing and my parents didn’t have jobs for health reasons so our income was government handouts (for lack of a better way to put it). I did not get to go on all the school excursions or camps because my parents could not afford it. I wore second-hand clothes, my school uniforms came from the donation bin at the school. When my high school changed its uniform to a new design my parents panicked because the uniforms were all new, no second-hand, and they did not know how they could afford a new one for me. I hated receiving help from people growing up. Especially when it came to gifts or acts of kindness I could never repay. It felt embarrassing. I told myself, it was a matter of pride. Yet, the people who gave me things did not always want me to give them something back. The only thing they wanted in return was to see me succeed. They wanted to see me grow and change and be the person I had always hoped to be, but could not get their without help.

The act of settai is a bit like the concept of paying it forward. You do not need to return the gift to the same person, but rather give a gift to the next person you see in need. Give and receive gifts because we cannot do it all alone. Give gifts because it can make your heart lighter and give gifts to help people. Give small gifts and big gifts, and gifts that cost nothing and gifts that cost a lot. Receive gifts of every shape and size and be grateful for them, but not trapped and beholden to the idea that the gift must be reciprocated to the person who gave you the gift in the first place.

There is no easy way to solve our anxieties around gifts, but I think that viewing them as something more than a contract enriches the experience of giving and receiving gifts. It keeps us humble and asks us to look at the motivations behind why we give things to other people. Reading books and the sharing of knowledge can sometimes be the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others. So how are you going to change the story?

Have you read Lisa Dempster’s memoir about her 1,200km journey? What do you think about gift giving and receiving? As always, share the reading love.