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Why We Give Gifts

Why We Give Gifts

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April 4, 2010

December 22, 2005

One year, I gave my elementary-school-age nephew a rock for Christmas. Not just any old rock, but a piece of sandstone from a science store. In it were embedded fossils, shells, and other little surprises. But you couldn’t just take a hammer, smash it to pieces, and extract your prizes.

The rock came with little scraping and brushing tools, and, like a paleontologist, you had to slowly and methodically scrape away the rock.

Over the next few weeks, it was exciting for me to get my nephew's excited phone calls telling me that he thought he could see a little white piece of bone sticking out and that he would keep me informed on his progress. I was watching a curious mind and a fired imagination learning patience and perseverance.

One Christmas season tradition that makes this holiday stand out from all others is gift-giving. Crowded malls lead to brightly wrapped packages and then to bright eyes and smiles as the surprises are revealed to their recipients. Inevitably, this tradition is criticized as too commercial, although it seems strange that anyone should complain about living in a society of productive individuals, which allows us to purchase all the material comforts that make life pleasant. In any case, we need to produce before we can give. Some suggest that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Is this true? Is this pure altruism or is there something in it for us, the givers? This is a good time to ask about some of the reasons why is it valuable to us to give gifts.

The valid reason for giving gifts to others is that others are of value to us. Sometimes, we might give to others because of the continuing services they render to us. We’re happy for good co-workers, for the folks who park our cars, cut our hair, deliver our mail, or have principally commercial relationships with us. Sure, they were only doing their job. But it's still not a bad idea to remind them that we appreciate both the specific services they render and their virtues—fortitude, focus, productivity—that allow them to provide those services to begin with.

We give gifts to children not only for the obvious reason that we love them but also for the joy of seeing them excited and delighted by their holiday surprises. Of course, we also want them to understand that as adults they must work for most things of real value to them. But we want to instill in them the notion that the universe is ultimately benevolent and that there is a world of beautiful and wonderful things that are worth working for. And we also get a special pleasure if we manage to pick out an educational gift—like my nephew's rock—that actually delights and engages a young mind.

Sometimes, if we're really creative, we can pick just the perfect gift that we know will be of special meaning to the individual that we value—a book or CD that they've been looking for but can’t find or perhaps something of which they are entirely unaware. It gives us a particular joy when we manage to pull off such a present because it’s actually a case of “to love them is to know them.” It’s our recognition of the interests, values, and emotions of the other—the things we love about them—that allows us to anticipate the joy that will come both from their gift and from their recognition that someone really sees and appreciates what is essential about them, that they are visible to another's understanding mind and soul.

Even when we can’t find that perfect gift, we still take joy in giving a little something because of what parents, siblings, children, relatives, or friends mean to us. So as you sit around handing them even just a token tie or box of chocolates, think of what they mean to you and why you’re giving them the gift. Think of what they’ve meant to you in recent weeks, months, years or all your life. Or better still, tell them!

Both giving and receiving are great. But the gift is not just in the box that's given or received but in the hearts and minds of the givers and receivers as an affirmation of the people they value.

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