I’ve been wondering: What makes something a gift? What is the difference between a gift and a privilege? What does it mean to be gifted? How can we help one another discover and develop our gifts? What would it mean to live in a gifted society?
To understand the essence of gift, it may be helpful to explore the shamanic notion of “medicine.” In various shamanic traditions, the word medicine is used to describe the unique combination of qualities that a particular living thing embodies. For instance, the medicine of a tree is the way it offers shade and shelter; the way it models the beauty that can arise from being rooted in a single place over time; the way it teaches flexibility: changing with the seasons, and bending without breaking in the breeze. Together, this combination of qualities constitutes what is known as tree medicine. By sharing tree medicine with non-trees, trees assume their unique identity as “trees” in the world. In the shamanic understanding, this is how everything works: rivers, eagles, roses, whales, forests, spiders, cliffs — each living thing embodying a unique combination of gifts, which are collectively known as its medicine.
In our human world, the same understanding applies. Each one of us harbors a unique combination of inner gifts, waiting to be discovered, drawn out, and developed. These gifts are the keys to unlocking our authentic identities: otherwise known as our medicine — the specific way we have a “healing” effect on the world. When we speak of someone being gifted, perhaps this is precisely what we mean: someone who’s put into practice their natural medicine, someone who’s therefore become a doctor of life.
In our current culture, we lack this ancient understanding, and so we get into trouble. We confuse the notion of gifts with the notion of privilege, and we lose ourselves in games of blame and shame, getting caught up in debates about external conditions. Privilege is essentially situational: a set of external conditions into which a person arrives, whether by birth or by experience. Gifts, on the other hand, are essentially latent potentials: inner qualities, talents, and predilections that we embody regardless of where we happen to be situated in the external world.
In the polarizing terms of our current “identity politics,” the focus is almost entirely on external conditions: socio-economic status, skin color, pronouns, gender, and sex. What if “identity politics” were re-imagined to focus less on external privilege, and more on internal gifts? Perhaps we could develop a system for supporting young people in identifying their own unique gifts, without being seduced by the shoulds of other people’s storylines. We could see these two potent questions as sacred: What makes me feel most alive when I do it? What makes the world respond with a “yes”?
Jonathan Harris is an artist and technologist — known for his work with data, design, documentary, and Life Art.