Putting giving back into Thanksgiving

Lynne McTaggart

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, the only one that celebrates the things in life that really matter: the power of family and connection, the sacred ritual of sharing plentiful food.

 Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, the only one that celebrates the things in life that really matter: the power of family and connection, the sacred ritual of sharing plentiful food.

But in most cases, what is glaringly absent for anyone other than young children, who learn of the first harvest in America and the generosity of the native Americans, is what the holiday is actually supposed to celebrate:  the power of selfless giving.


In fact, giving is hardly part of our Western language anymore.


Not long ago, an American researcher from the University of California was conducting research on the Suya Indians of Mato Grosso, Brazil, in an attempt to determine how they use numbers.This group of Amazonian Indians is largely famous for their music; Anthony Seeger, a professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that their singing is used to create community, establish relationships and social identity, and also to formulate ideas about time and space. Singing, to a Suya, is both hard and soft science.


When one minus one isn’t a minus

Many scientists who examine differences in number systems between cultures have concluded that many native cultures don’t have language to describe quantities of things; for instance, the Piraha people use the same word “hoi” to describe “about one” and “about two”; the only difference is a subtle alteration in inflection of pronunciation. 


The much-studied Munduruku in the Amazon have words for numbers only up to five. This has led many scientists to examine whether human beings have innate numerical skills or whether number sense is a part of cultural conditioning. 


On this occasion, the American researcher offered a numerical problem to a member of the Suya tribe: If you had ten fish and gave away three, how many would you have?


The Suya answered without hesitation. As anybody in the village could tell you, the answer was 13. 


In the Suya tradition, whenever you give something away to someone else, the recipient pays you back double.  So if he gave three fish to his brother, he said, his brother would have to give him back two times three fish, or six. 


So added to his ten original fish he would first have sixteen fish. But once he deducted the three fish he originally gave his brother, he would have a net increase of three, or thirteen.  So, 10-3 = 7 in Western mathematics transforms into 10 + (2×3) – 3 = 13 in Suya mathematics.


Giving is addition

The native was dismayed at the American version of the equation.  “Why is it that ‘giving’ is always seen as a ‘minus’ for white people?’ his fellow tribesman asked, entering the debate.  “I know that you want me to use the minus sign instead of the plus sign, but I don’t understand why.”


This entire episode surprised Alex Bellos, the author of Here’s Looking at Euclid, a study of cultural differences in mathematics.  He began his study with the belief that numbers are a universal language – the way in which we could, say, communicate with extra-terrestrials — only to find that our basic understanding of arithmetical relationships depends upon cultural context.


This story reveals something very profound not simply about mathematics but about how different cultures view relationships in general, particularly how we view ourselves in relation to other things. Our sense of mathematics very much depends upon how we define our world, and whether we view ourselves and all the things around us as individual entities separate from each other or inherently intertwined.


The bigger whole

Many non-Western societies — pre-literate cultures such as the Aborigines, the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians, the adherents of Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism, and a number of extant indigenous cultures  —  conceive of the universe as inseparable, connected by some universal energy life force.


This central bel
ief breeds an extraordinarily different way of seeing and interacting with the world.  We see the thing; they see the totality, the relationship between the things.


To an indigenous native, giving is an act so inherently rewarding that it must always be denoted with addition and not subtraction.  The most important aspect of any relationship is all about the plus sign - focusing on whatever is required to make the connection. 

Facebook Comments

We embed Facebook Comments plugin to allow you to leave comment at our website using your Facebook account. This plugin may collect your IP address, your web browser User Agent, store and retrieve cookies on your browser, embed additional tracking, and monitor your interaction with the commenting interface, including correlating your Facebook account with whatever action you take within the interface (such as “liking” someone’s comment, replying to other comments), if you are logged into Facebook. For more information about how this data may be used, please see Facebook’s data privacy policy: https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/update

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Why wait any longer when you’ve already been waiting your entire life?

Sign up and receive FREE GIFTS including The Power of Eight® handbook and a special video from Lynne! 

Top usercarttagbubblemagnifiercrosschevron-down