Vol 3, Num 20 :: 2004.12.03 — 2004.12.16
Maybe you've heard the anecdote about the recipient of an
extravagant gift who says to the giver, "This gift must have been an
incredible sacrifice for you!" And the giver replies, "If it weren't a
sacrifice, it wouldn't truly be a gift."
Something about this exchange seems true to me, but it's far from
answering all of the questions about gift-giving that arise in my mind
year after year as Christmas approaches. The first is inspired by
obligatory "exchanges": how can I purchase something meaningful for
people I hardly know? Guessing hardly seems to fulfill the best
purposes of the ritual.
But a deeper issue, perhaps, is one of agenda. When I know the
nieces would like Bratz dolls and the nephews would really like G.I.
Joe, is it okay for me to get them art supplies, challenging books and
organic snacks instead? On the one hand, a gift can educate and
introduce a person to something new—a new way of thinking, of seeing,
of experiencing. The right gift at the right time can inspire one of
those rare "aha" moments. After all, if we see a way to share a tiny
piece of the Kingdom, why not passionately share that understanding
with those we love through our gift-giving?
On the other hand, a gift can be a didactic teaching tool that tries
to force values that the recipient has already rejected or is not ready
for. Gifts can become agents with which to bully a recipient into
changing. If we think a friend wears too many dull, dark colors, we
might take it upon ourselves to buy a brightly colored shirt "just so
he can try it out." If we think a friend is too politically and
religiously conservative, we might buy him or her a gift subscription
for Sojourners or Prism. If we think a little brother
plays too many video games, we might get him a book he'll never read.
If we think a relative has too much stuff already, we might give a
donation in his or her name. If there's a line between giving a gift
that challenges and giving a gift that preaches, it is certainly faint.
If the notion of agenda giving plagues me, so too does agenda receiving.
Instead of being able to accept gifts as an expression of the giver's
love and thoughtfulness, I find myself putting together a long gift
list in my head of products that are fair trade or socially conscious,
to the point that I develop a snobbish disdain for gifts that are
purely indulgent or "not my taste." What is the proper response to a
gift that seems to gratify the giver's preferences over the
recipient's? I'm sure Emily Post could advise me on the etiquette, but
the more consequential struggle takes place in the heart—and no doubt
in the hearts of others when my gifts to them are clearly pushing my
I'm afraid I don't have any neatly packaged answers to these
questions (I'll add them to my mental list). Perhaps one of the best
gifts would be to know the people on my annual list more deeply so I
can better discover where our passions and values intersect. I can do a
better job of caring and being genuinely interested in what their needs
are, even to the point of discerning desires they can't put into words
themselves. I can do a better job of listening intently when, on
Christmas day amid the feasting and excitement, I ask the question,
"How are you?"
Discussion: Giving in the Spirit
What are your thoughts on some of the questions this article raises about gift-giving and receiving?