Friday, December 24, 2010

The Values of Useless Gifts. Part I: Why Bother at All?

At this time of year, thoughts and deeds naturally turn to gift giving, and I realize I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. Too many to condense into one post unless I subjected you all to a totally bizarre mish mash…So I’ll cut to the chase: gift giving can sometimes feel like a fundamentally frustrating enterprise. You go out, you make a lot of effort to buy things for people who all too often don’t like them. This is hard. After all the trouble, the recipient doesn’t like or doesn’t need your gift—or not really. I was confronted with this drama not so long ago when looking for a present for a friend. At my stage in life, most presents for my friends aren’t really *necessary*--almost no one expects them. I found something that I really liked—but was a more than I had intended to spend. So I got to thinking...Would she really like it? Would she appreciate the sacrifice that purchasing it for her entailed for me? Maybe she wouldn’t like it. Maybe I should forget the whole thing. Maybe I should just forget the whole thing and buy something for myself.....

That’s where I stopped. Too often, we make gift giving all about ourselves. About the recognition and respect we want others to give us because we bought them something great. But it can’t be just about that.( I am not a big fan of the concept of gift giving as a form of tipping or financial exchange, while I recognize the importance and relevance of those in certain cases.) Giving a gift also sends a message to myself: I value my relationship with this person enough that I am going to buy something that requires a sacrifice on my end. A sacrifice of my time, energy, and money. That sacrifice may not be ‘worth it’ in terms of the gratification I’ll get by seeing their appreciation. But it’s worth it in principle for myself—to remind me that I love people enough to sacrifice for them, even when they’re not always grateful.

I often think of the famous “Gift of the Magi” story by O.Henry, where a poor couple each have one treasure in the world: the husband his watch, and the wife, her beautiful long hair. The husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife, while the wife cuts off her hair and sells it to buy a chain for his watch. The story ironic, but not tragic—which makes all the difference. You could look at the situation as a terrible waste: neither of them gets anything for their pains. But that’s not true—both of them see that the other was willing to part with what most precious. That most precious thing was still less precious than the other person.

Isn’t that something worth remembering on the day before Christmas?

1 comment:

  1. I have always loved that story- thanks for bringing it back---and indeed so good to remember at Christmastime, and always. And so true- that it is never just about the gift itself- but the effort, and really the thought.