The other day, my roommate was raving about Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. We just adore Trevor. Maybe it’s his dimples. Maybe it’s his accent. Maybe it’s his understanding nature. Maybe it’s his hilarious stories. Maybe it’s his kind demeanor. Whatever it is, we love him and forked over a decent sum of money to see him live in January.
After waiting about 2 months for it from the library, it was finally my turn to pick his book. With one of the most hectic and demanding semesters I have ever experienced in progress, I did not know if I would have time for the almost 300 page childhood memoir, but Trevor caught me from page one where he explains apartheid in South Africa as an introduction and then bemoans the unrealistic portrayal of jumping out of moving vehicles in movies. He knew. He had to do it when he was 9 with his mother and baby brother because his Xhosa mother had ticked off their Zulu bus driver on the way back from a marathon of church on Sunday.
Trevor’s Born a Crime is the new standard by which I will judge all other autobiographies. It is incredibly informative, hilarious, and insightful. Simply, it is a must read. But this is not one of my book breakdowns (of which I have a first, second, and third edition). This is reflecting on a line that struck me.
In Chapter 7, Trevor recounts the story of his childhood of a Maltese terrier and poodle mix named Fufi. His mother got two dogs from a colleague whose neighbor’s dog impregnated his dog and he did not want the puppies. Panther was his mother’s dog. Fufi was Trevor’s. As he describes her, “Fufi was the love of my life.”
When Fufi had to be put down, the family found out she was deaf. But the family just thought she was a disobedient, dumb rascal. But the one thing Fufi could do well was jump. She jumped so high, in fact, that she scaled the 5-foot fence around Trevor’s home and went around the neighborhood. One day, Trevor caught her doing this and was shocked when she jumped the fence into another kid’s yard. Trevor argued with the kid that Fufi was his, but the other kid argued she was his and named Spotty. It did not help that when Trevor called her that she did not come. (Though this is likely due to her deafness, but the family did not know about that yet.)
Eventually, when his mother came home and Trevor remained distraught, she went over to the house. The mother of the other kid was not relenting about keeping the dog, so his mother eventually gave them some money, and they took Fufi home.
As he writes,
I sobbed the whole way home, still heartbroken. My mom had no time for my whining.
“Why are you crying?!”
“Because Fufi loves another boy.”
“So? Why would that hurt you? It didn’t cost you anything. Fufi’s here. She still loves you. She’s still your dog. So get over it.”
Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has ever betrayed me more than Fufi. It was a valuable lesson to me. The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasn’t cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadn’t affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent.
I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love.”
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, emphasis added
Imagine if we all lived with this attitude. Domestic violence would be drastically reduced. Parents would not pressure their kids so much to conform to their expectations. There would not be such a “you owe me” attitude after giving someone something.
I think as a general society, we have forgotten the meaning of gift.
We live in a world that is driven on gift economy, which is the idea that valuables are given with an implicit agreement for future reward for the giver. This idea often pervades our personal relationships from parent-child to romantic to friends. We often give in the expectation of receiving.
How many times have I done this? How many times has this been done to me?
A prime example I wrote about years ago was my ex-boyfriend from college who once hid a little present in my suitcase when I went home for a weekend. I became physically ill when I saw a tiny teddy bear that said “I miss you.” It seemed sweet, but I knew it was manipulation. He gave the gift with the expectation that I’d say I missed him too. I did not miss him and was relieved to get away. I broke up with him that week.
That is not how God designed relationships.
St. John Paul II often spoke and wrote about love. In a general audience that became part of Theology of the Body, he talked about an “interior freedom” that is necessary for love, which is “the disinterested gift of oneself.”
A disinterested gift of oneself does not mean that the giver is not interested in the person. Rather, the giver loves the other person and is very interested in his or her wellbeing. But precisely because the giver loves the other person, the giver is only thinking of the other’s wellbeing and offers love as a freely given gift without expectation of return.
This is the love of God. God loves us so much, is interested in everything with do, but his love is disinterested in that He gives Himself as gift without expectation of us loving in return. Jesus never wants to own us. He deeply desire us to freely love Him, and this is the standard He sets for us in our own relationships.
I think this idea is well summarized in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant:
“…the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’
Should we not love as we are loved by God? Yes, it is difficult to be completely invested in someone, to love them intensely, and yet respect their freedom. Frankly, I think it is impossible without the grace of God. But other option is to try to control someone. As much as that can keep someone around for a while, it will not last and it is not satisfying to the deep pit in our soul that desires to be loved for our own sake.
God does not own us, and therefore, we cannot own anyone else. Maybe you have learned this lesson from a dog. Maybe you have learned this lesson from an ex-boyfriend’s teddy bear. Maybe you still need to learn it. But like Trevor wisely wrote, ‘You do not own the thing that you love.’