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Civilization and the art of waiting

Faithfulness and redemption/12 - Waiting for and giving God, men and especially women know how to do it.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  20/06/2021

"Life flies away like a dream, and you do not have time to do anything before the instant of its fullness escapes you. This is why it is essential to learn the art of living, the most difficult and most important of arts: that of filling every moment with substantial content, in the awareness that it will never be repeated again."

Pavel Florenskij, Letters from the 20th of April 1937, from the Gulag of Solovki

Boaz’s gift to Ruth and Ruth’s gift to Naomi are teachings on the grammar of gifts, of those "before" and those "after" the encounters.

The Bible also contains a grammar on the ethics and spirituality of waiting. The first to practice the art of waiting in the Bible is God himself who awaits us while we get lost in the pigsties where our desire for happiness or simply the invincible force of life has led us. Then there is the great expectation of the Messiah, of the end of the exile, of the awakening of God, and the infinite waiting for the Lord's return. «Yes, come Lord Jesus!», are the words with which the Book of Revelation ends, with which the Christian Bible ends. Men await (Noah the end of the flood, Abraham that the promised son will arrive, Moses that he will be able to convert the pharaoh, Jeremiah the word for the people, Job that God finally arrives...), but above all and very differently, women are ones who wait. They wait in the Bible because they wait in life. Our story is also the story of mothers-wives-daughters-sisters who had to learn the art of waiting, as an essential part of the art of living. They wait moment by moment, feeling every single one of them, without letting even one moment pass in vain. The wait nine months for their children, and then for the children to forgive each other, the men who do not return from war, those who return from work, from prison, the one who perhaps one day will finally understand the pain that they have caused and return home. In general, this waiting is both laborious and active, but sometimes, after having done their part, what was possible as well as the impossible, they know how to wait and that is that. Like Ruth and Naomi are about to do (The Book of Ruth 3,15).

Boaz concludes his nocturnal meeting with Ruth with a gift. A gift that was neither foreseen nor expected, which says a lot.

A gift, in general, precedes a meeting, prepares it, sets the space for it, is the first silent word in a dialogue that is about to begin. This is what another woman who has traits in common with Ruth did: Abigail. When she learned of the possible conflict between her husband and King David, and brought gifts to the King (1 Samuel 25,18). The gifts that precede a meeting are precious. Whoever receives them prepares his mind and heart for the start of a good relationship. Jacob, who before meeting his deceived brother Esau sent him gifts, knew this as well (Genesis 32,14). Preventive gifts are like oil in the machinery of relationships. Arriving at a friend’s home with a gift is not just good manners. In that bottle of wine, in that book, in that bouquet of flowers, there are traces of an ancient language ​​that has been the cement and glue of many civilizations. What appears as simple courtesy to us today is what remains of decisive gestures that helped to transform our spears into ploughshares. That object that enters the door of a friendly home with us, sometimes preceding us, is celebrating a bond, it is saying thank you for being there, before knowing how good that dinner will really be. Sometimes when we do not have enough words to exchange, or when pain and anger have consumed them all, we arrive with a gift filling the evening with all the words that are necessary, filling our silence with a friendly sound. Other times, you open the door for me, you see the package, we hug, and all other words melt away. These gifts are the soul of forgiveness, which is really a meeting of reciprocal gifts: in order to ask the other person to be forgiven, I must first precede him with a gift, if only with my tears - forgiveness is also the multiplication of giving (for-give).

However, there are also gifts that follow a meeting, those that arrive later. When the package arrives at the end, when we least expected it, without an obvious reason. Because while the "gifts that are given before" need a reason (and if they do not, they may the gift from a pharaoh or the mafia), the "gifts that come after" do not. They just arrive. This is why they are the greatest surprise, and the most welcome one, entirely free. The gifts that come afterwards may not be there, they are not necessary. That is why we like them so much, perhaps too much. And if we have not received even one, we continue to wait for it until the very end, perhaps it will be the gift of the angel.

What is the nature of the gifts given after meetings? Ruth was probably preoccupied by Boaz’s words announcing the existence of another redeemer (goèl) a closer relative than he was, who had precedence. And here came the gift to reassure, encourage, ensure, saying: "do not fear, I am here". Gifts are always important, but especially when we are in turmoil, when our relationships falter. Sometimes, we men know how to give them. These gifts are not counter-gifts, because if they were, they would not surprise us and they would not be entirely gratuitous. This is why they were excessive, large and abundant (six sizes corresponded perhaps to 42 litres). The "gifts given before" can be humble and simple; the "gifts given after" are sprawling, they love spending, they are dépense (Georges Bataille), they do not have to follow the logic of calculation and equivalences. That gift was the last word of that important meeting, so that the conversation between them could continue after that night. The "gifts that are given after" are there to tell the value of what has already happened, to create a good kind of debt in the other person, which can only be answered by continuing the chain of gifts and gratuitousness. Maybe Boaz got the idea of ​​that gift during a meeting or at the end of one; maybe he had not foreseen it. Because these gifts have the ability to surprise even those who give them.

«When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “How did it go, my daughter?” Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”» (The Book of Ruth 3,16-17). The mother-in-law welcomes her with a very human: «So?». Here, as in the end of the second chapter (The Book of Ruth 2,21), Ruth tells Naomi about the events in different words than those she had heard from Boaz. In fact, the man had not told her that the barley was for Naomi, but everything suggested that in fact it was. No words are the same to everyone. In every tale of words that we hear, our own interpretation plays a great part as well. We see it every day in our families, communities and in our businesses, even if we do everything to convey the messages in unequivocal and linear spoken and written words, the different meanings we give to those same words that we all hear and read, often give way to both conflicts and inefficiencies. It happens to everyone, especially women, who often give a different and deeper exegeses or interpretation, thanks to a very special relationship with words (having to convey it at the beginning and at the end of life, when only they are able to decipher those whispers and groans). Thus, a particular facial expression, a wink, an inflection in the tone of voice, a smile, speak together with the words and change them.

Here Ruth gives Naomi a different interpretation of the gift of barley, making it a gift from Boaz's to Naomi. Perhaps she guessed it from Boaz's words and gestures, or perhaps Ruth just wanted to give her own gift to Naomi by changing the sense-direction of that barley. Gifts love short distances. They do not like intermediate steps. The only degree of separation they want is one. If Ruth had said to Naomi: "This is the gift that Boaz gave to me and that I am now giving to you", the value of that gift for Naomi would have been greatly reduced. In the market, the various steps in the supply chain of goods tend to increase their price and often their value as well. The opposite happens, however, when it comes to gifts: if I know that you received a gift, which you are now giving me, from someone else, the value of your gift to me and the value of the gift that was given to you are immediately reduced (this is also the reason behind the social norm of never recycling gifts). God is not the only one who loved the first fruits from Abel - All donors love the first fruits.

However, Ruth also suggests something else here. Telling us what the proper attitude of someone who is at the centre of a transmission of gifts should be. It is the secret of the ethics of parents, of an educator, of a carer, of a teacher. The gift of knowledge that I am giving you is not something of mine that I generously bestow upon you; instead, I am only the one who transmits "the gift of barley" to you – of God, of the society that gives you its inheritance, of the gratuity of which the earth is full. On the other hand, when the intermediaries are transformed into the source of the gift, they become an idol, no longer repeating: "The barley is not mine; it was already here for you". The first generosity of an educator lies in not thinking or presenting him- or herself as the owner of the barley, but only as a means or bridge transmitting the gift. This is the pre-condition of authentic gratuity, necessary in every process of transmitting life, knowledge and wisdom. Furthermore, even when we know that all our talent and our personal commitment lies within the gift that we are transmitting, if we are honest, we also know that our part is a mere glass of water in an ocean of gratuitousness. These words from Ruth regarding the gift from Boaz are her last words in the book. She is no longer the protagonist in the fourth chapter. No other words could have concluded her speech in a better way.

«Then Naomi said, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today» (The Book of Ruth 3,18). The two women had done their part, and more, to help Providence do its job. Now the time has come for resting, for stillness, for waiting. Another time had begun. They knew. Now they can only rely on the goodness of life and of Boaz, and hope. Hope needs the art of waiting. Those who know how to hope have also learned to wait. Our time has forgotten to hope because it has forgotten the value of waiting: «All human wisdom will consist of these two words: waiting and hope» (Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo).

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