When ‘giving’ isn’t really giving at all

Recently I attended three local events at which I learnt important things from three passionate people.

The first was Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk. I first read about her book in the New Yorker, and added it to my absolutely must-read pile. So when I saw that she was talking about her book in Katoomba, I reserved my spot in the front row. To say that Helen’s memoir is about how she trained a goshawk is to ignore that it is also a treatise on grief, literature of immense poeticism and an intense meditation on being human. The New Yorker called H is for Hawk ‘an improbable and hybrid creature’, as well as ‘coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.’

The second was Simon Cherriman, West Australian environmental biologist, who answered questions after a screening of his documentary about fitting GPS trackers to wedge-tailed eagles, Where do Eagles Dare? While Simon’s documentary is less perfectly formed than H is for Hawk – he is young, give him time ­- it is beautiful, absorbing and worth watching for the six-foot-eight naturalist’s extraordinary tree climbing ability alone.

The third was Anne Manne, who spoke eloquently about the culture of narcissism as written about in her book The Life of I at an event hosted by Korowal School in the Blue Mountains. Anne spoke about narcissism at both individual and societal levels, and, based on solid research, argued that self-absorption is on the increase in western culture. The antidote lies in changing both the way we rear and nurture children and in ending our worship of neoliberal economics and the culture it engenders.

Wedge tail eagle

The parallels between Helen Macdonald and Simon Cherriman’s work are obvious. Both have presented work about birds of prey in creative form. Both have held on to and nurtured, and finally shared, a passion for huge and magnificent raptors.  But if they are just two lovely people (and they are) who are passionate about birds, why did their ideas and their work leave my brain zinging? Why did what they shared make me want to grab every passer-by, maniac-like, and tell them ‘Read this book. Watch this film. You have to.’?

Both have made something of immense beauty. Both made me more aware of the magnificence and slight ridiculousness of these two giant birds of prey, with their unthinkably powerful wings grounded by legs that appear to be dressed in feathered pyjamas.

What captivated me was that each had had a very specific passion since childhood, and pursued it. Macdonald started her self-education in the art of falconry aged six. By her own admission, she was ‘the most appalling falconry bore’ before she hit adolescence. Lucky for us. Cherriman grew up with a love of the West Australian bush, and was only 15 when he found an eagle’s nest that began his passion for them. He describes wedge-tailed eagles as gentle and nurturing parents, despite their immense strength and predilection for a fresh kill.

And that’s where Anne Manne comes into the picture. She described parenting that combines strength and gentleness as one way to step back from raising another generation of the self-obsessed. Her work highlighted for me that I had loved those two incursions into the world of raptors not because of some latent ambition to be an ornithologist (although, in another life…) or because I realised I should follow my childhood passion (I don’t think I had one, unless you count reading).

It was because for an hour or two I listened to somebody with complete mastery of both their subject and its expression talk about it without any narcissism. Their subject was bigger than their ego. They were there to give and to share. Promoting their book and DVD sales was incidental.

It struck me that so much of the ‘giving’ we do in the course of our work and on social media is not really giving at all. That many of the ‘8 great free tips’ and ‘download my free guide’ gifts are only thinly disguised and often rather grandiose marketing. Of course we need to market our skills and to reach out to new customers. But let’s be more real in our giving, more altruistic and less narcissistic in our sharing, liking and linking.

Anne Manne said this that really resonated with me: the assertion that we don’t need things from others is narcissistic in itself.  We are social creatures, and none us can go it alone. Whether it is help at work or support in our private lives, we benefit from connectedness.

Manne’s book ends with the argument that society’s collective narcissism is affecting our ability to take care of the very earth we live on. We need to turn our attention away from ourselves and towards caring for our environment; to stop believing that we are entitled to all the earth’s resources and to start sharing the commons. Just ask the eagles.

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