As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.
My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.
Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.
Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.
And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.
Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.
All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.
What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?
Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.
Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.
These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.