Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

The Value of a Gift

Part of Virtue Ethics

What is the value of a gift given?

Is it just the dollar amount on the price tag or are some gifts worth much more?

Let me tell you about a gift that was not worth much monetarily, but which made a wealthy woman richer than she could have imagined.

I was fortunate to participate in an international charitable organization's trip to Honduras. The trip was for educators, which was defined broadly: some of the people on the tour were schoolteachers, others volunteered at local schools to help children learn about the work of the organization. Our support for this organization and belief in the value of education was what we shared. Otherwise, we were an eclectic bunch, varied in age, location, ethnicity, and class. We were led by Rita, a local woman, married to the Presbyterian minister who organized the Honduras program.

I was assigned to a dorm with three other women. One of those women was Ann. Ann was tall and lanky. She was gregarious and loud. She wore comfortable clothes in muted colors, but they looked expensive. Even her shoes looked expensive. Ann did not need to work for a living; she lived in a small New England town and volunteered at the local historical society. After the trip, she planned to share her experiences with the rest of the ladies at the historical society. As her roommates, we heard all about it. We heard about her horses, her antique jewelry, her summer place, her two Mini Coopers. Ann's conversation revolved around her possessions. We heard all about them because my other two roommates virtually drooled over her lifestyle. You could hear the longing and envy in their urges for her to tell more.

During the day, we toured sites where the charity was working with local partners to end hunger. Ann strode into villages, with a bright smile and jovial banter, and made easy friends. She was funny and a master of sparkling conversation — what was there not to like? She always had questions and was generous with her opinions.

She noticed other people's possessions. She complimented our translator/guide, Rita, on her earrings. She raved about my green hiking boots. She was always the last one back from shopping trips, one time purchasing a large, hand-carved bench that was going to cost almost as much to ship to her home as what she had paid for it.

During one long bus ride, she leaned over to me and whispered, "Look inside their houses!" I started peeking quickly into open doorways of the simple huts sitting beside the road. In many of them, I only saw a hammock or two, maybe a plastic chair, pots and pans. This was poverty beyond what I had seen in the States. Still, Ann seemed more shocked than I. After all, if hunger was a reality for these villages, they would not spend money on extraneous furniture.

On the last day, we packed our bags, stripped our beds, and loaded the bus. I came back into the dorm room for the last time, to retrieve a bag I had forgotten. Ann was sitting on her naked bed, her head lowered, her arms outstretched in front of her. She said nothing as I entered the room, so I knew something must be wrong.

"Ann, are you okay?" I asked. For a time, she said nothing.

"She gave me her earrings," she finally volunteered, still not looking up.

"Who gave you her earrings?"

"Rita. I complimented her on her earrings the other day and she brought them today just to give them to me. I can't believe she did that. She has so little... ." her voice drifted off, her hands unclenched and I saw the inexpensive little beaded earrings in her palms. She looked up, deep into my eyes. Tears were rolling down her face. In the silence of the tiny room, I swear I could feel Ann's heart beating stronger and louder than humanely possible. I smiled at her. She smiled back. Together, we picked up our bags and walked to the bus to start our journey home.