As a society, we so often seem to have lost the concept of being graceful receivers of gifts…
I’ve run into several situations lately where I’ve chosen to give small gifts – sometimes to people I know, sometimes to people I’ve never met. And in well over half the cases, the giftees have either argued with me or been uncomfortable with the process until I’ve reminded them that in not being willing to receive, they take away the enjoyment in the giving. Others have remembered the two simple words that are most appropriate in that situation: Thank you.
It’s really made me think about the culture we’ve created for ourselves. I’ve spent time in cultures where you have to be very careful about how much you admire a person’s possessions, because you’re likely to be given a particular possession if you aren’t careful about how you express yourself. To refuse at that point is to cause the giver to lose face in his/her own community. I’ve spent time in cultures where giving is considered a blessing, and in places where the givers do their giving in as much secrecy as possible to avoid any embarrassment on either side. I seem to live in a culture where gifting so often involves keeping invisible balance sheets of who owes whom what. There are cultures where giving is an expected part of being in a position of power and creates a dependecy relationship; there are other cultures where the expectation is that gifts are given to the person in power.
The theme that runs through all of these things, however, is that we need social rules about giving to ease the process and to avoid creating power differentials between giver and receiver that don’t need to be there. In a society that prides itself on perceived equality and egalitarianism, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of keeping that invisible balance sheet.
Personally, I hate the mandatory gifting holidays. I much prefer my gifting to happen from the heart, as I am moved. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of the times when I the timing is right to give something – and honestly, getting the timing right brings far more impact to a small gift than a large gift does for a mandatory gifting holiday.
Gifting isn’t about payback. It’s not about guilt. It’s about pleasure – pleasure in connecting with another person; pleasure in providing them with something they will enjoy or find useful. It’s about tapping into our souls and seeing the soul of another; about the practice of generosity with an open hand.
Giving as a spiritual practice can teach us to learn to live in an attitude of abundance rather than one of scarcity. It can teach us to take pleasure in the process of giving of ourselves with no expectation of return. It teaches us to hold to possessions with an open hand, and to value many other intangible things above the things that we own. It can connect us to the world in a way that nothing else can, for giving is a gift that pays itself forward. Every time we bring that little bit of light and gratitude into someone else’s life, we provide a platform where they are more likely to bring light and gratitude into the lives of those with whom they connect.
Giving requires participation. It requires people who are willing to give with no expectation of payback. And it requires people who are willing to receive. It requires people who, if they feel the need to protest, do so only gently, as a way to ensure themselves that the gift is really intended as a gift. Better yet, it requires people who are willing simply to say, “thank you”, and accept the gift gracefully, without any belief that they are required to pay it back to the giver. (Yes, it’s possible to give anonymously. But that’s sometimes just not possible…)
There is a school of thought that claims that giving with the expectation of even a thank you isn’t actually giving. I find a lot of credence to this – that to truly give from the heart, we must let go of all expectations of the receiver, and be willing to accept whatever is offered. Otherwise, we create a transaction where we give in exchange for feeling good about ourselves.
On one level, I happen to agree with that school of thought, simply because it’s an argument I can’t refute. But that argument comes from a philosophical perspective, and I am a sociologist and a systems specialist, not a philosopher. We are people who exist in a network of other people. We can’t ignore that reality. We do not give in a vacuum, and while there may be some of us who are capable of giving of ourselves over and over again in a climate that is less than appreciative, most people end up burned out or damaged if they’re subjected to that sort of reception all the time. That’s not the goal. Gifting is something that should be joyous, not something that should be stressful.
Remember this, the next time you are offered a gift. Remember this, the next time you think about gifting someone. Be gracious, on whichever side of the exchange you find yourself.
Then go out and pay it forward.