Friday, January 13, 2012

Pass it on

Recently, some of my friends and I have unexpectedly found ourselves in a fairly high-stakes game of hand-me-down.

We laugh about the big-ticket items we hand off to each other. A couple of years ago, one friend of mine was surprised to learn that I was anchored to my desk during writing time because of my desktop computer, so she gave me a lightweight laptop she no longer needed. When I confessed that I was somewhat taken aback by her generosity, she responded by asking if I could feed her cat for a couple of nights the following month while she was traveling. I agreed, and she claimed we were even.

When we moved out of our house last spring, we discovered that a family we know who seems to have every possible toy didn’t, in fact, have a pool table; our new house came with one already in the basement, so we had ours delivered to the other family.

A couple of months ago, a different friend invited my family over for dinner; in the course of a discussion about my lack of mobile Internet access, she announced that she could give me an iPhone that was of no use to her because it was incompatible with her phone coverage. I felt remiss; after all, it’s usually the guests who bring the host a present rather than vice versa, not to mention the magnitude of the gift she was sending us home with. But then a couple weeks later, the same friend said she was thinking of buying a treadmill; we happened to have one that no one had used for over a year, so we gave it to her.

Meanwhile, the iPhone, with its astounding array of features, replaced my need for an iPod and a camera, both of which I gave to my 9-year-old, as well as the need for my NikePlus pedometer system, which I gave to my niece.

As Amy Suardi wrote yesterday on the TLC Parentables website, sometimes it’s just a lot easier to hand something off than to try to return or resell it. Ebay serves a number of useful purposes, but for those of us who try to use it only occasionally, it can involve a lot of hassle: listing, responding to inquiries, packaging, mailing. Organizations like Goodwill and Big Brother Big Sister are great resources for giving away outgrown clothes and household goods, but sometimes it’s just so simple and satisfying to hand things off to people you know. When our landlords returned last summer to clean out the basement of the house we now rent, they asked me if I would mind dispensing of a few rather large toys for them – a toy piano, a workbench, a kitchen set. Surely I knew someone who could use them, they said, and save them a trip to the dump. My mother was willing to take them to her hairdresser’s grandchildren, who reportedly were delighted with the new toys.

Sometimes it seems a little like taking the lazy way out: when I hand things on to people I know, I almost always do so with the certainty that if I put a little effort into it, I could find a needier cause. At the same time, as Amy Suardi says, it builds a sense of goodwill and social capital. “Here, take this,” we say to each other. “Do you have any use for these?” “My son was too big for this jacket by the time winter arrived.” “I never open these cookbooks.” “Could your daughter use some skates?” It’s one of those things that makes our widespread community – the community of friends, relatives, parenting peers, townspeople – feel more like a village.

Genuine charitable giving of both goods and money is still important too, of course. But there’s a special sense of connection that comes with seeing a friend use your old camera or going for a ride on the bike that was once your sister’s. As Amy writes, “When you give stuff away, instead of trying to squeeze every last dollar out of it, you are exuding an attitude of abundance. The law of attraction says if you feel abundant, you will attract abundance. When you give, you will receive. … And by reusing things, you'll not only be saving money, you'll be saving the earth.”

I’m fostering friendships, spreading abundance, and saving the earth. It’s hard to argue with those benefits.

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