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Tiziana Dearing Headshot

Can We Give Back "Giving Back?"

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When I turned 40, I discovered that the secret sisterhood in which I believed had let me down.

They didn't warn me.

They didn't warn me that my metabolism would grind to a screaming halt while my appetite would continue just fine, thank you very much. They didn't warn me that the risk of injury -- once the exclusive domain of extreme exercise -- would leak into mortifyingly mundane activities such as grocery shopping, or sneezing. And they didn't warn me that I would turn from a vibrant woman into a grumpy old man.

I want to smack any young person who wears his pants so that his underwear shows. (Did you notice I actually used the term "young person" just there?) The word "hussy" has crept into my vocabulary. And, worst of all, I rant about vaguely political subjects, usually beginning with, "And another thing."

My latest "And another thing" is the phrase "giving back." I hate it and want to ban it. Overused, misunderstood and mildly condescending, this phrase turns the idea of helping each other into a way to celebrate one's superiority for acting like the basic, decent human beings we're supposed to be.

Back in the old days, "giving back" was the domain of eccentric celebrities and rock stars. Everyone else just "volunteered." A Jon Bon Jovi, for example, might decide to "give back" to his home state of New Jersey by holding a benefit concert or appearing in a "Discover Hoboken" commercial. Such giving back activities were supposedly a thank-you-for-making-me-who-I-am-today. In truth, though, they subtly communicated I-got-out-of-here-and-became-someone-in-spite-of-you-and-now-will-prove-it-by-showing-you-poor-saps-the-power-I-have-to-make-things-better-for-you.

Now, not to be outdone in this celebrity-focused culture, we're all "giving back." Corporations are "giving back" at breakneck pace. Target is running a commercial celebrating it's "giving back" through the 1 million hours its employees gave to their communities last year.

This is not "giving back." The employees and residents of those communities made you what you are, Target. This is just the right way to say, "Thank you." Plus, your employees are engaged because they live in those communities and that's what good neighbors do. They're not "giving back;" they're engaged because they care. Celebrating such civic engagement as "giving back" cheapens it. At least it seems that way to your over-40 customer who will spend the next week trying to burn off the Sun Chips you so thoughtfully placed right next to the checkout counter.

And now, "giving back" has crept its way into the neighborhood lexicon. The head of the local PTO is just happy to be able to "give back." The local business owner is "giving back" when she serves in the Rotary with her clients or tosses candy with her logo on it at the Memorial Day parade.

You're not Bon Jovi, Rotary person and PTO head, nor are you an NBA star nor, apparently, Target. You're not "giving back," and I don't even think that's what you think you're doing.

I think you realize that you still live there, and all of these wonderful things you do -- and they truly are wonderful -- are part of the natural symbiosis that makes a community a community. What you are doing is philanthropy, but not the new-fangled, disturbing definition that is about showering the power and grace you have on those who don't have it. It's the real philanthropy of giving and receiving resources, gifts and abilities to make our communities better.

Let's ban the cynical term but keep the actions. Giving and receiving are beautiful things.

I could say more on this subject, believe me, but I have to go. My sciatica is acting up, and I have to go tell some kids to get off my lawn.