Potatoes; a pocket watch chain; a pair of decorative combs; a plastic crucifix. Are any of these on your gift list? We may turn up our collective nose and scoff at the quaintness, yet each in its own way could stand in for the grander definition of “gift”.
The 14th century Persian Sufi master and poet Hafiz, in a poem entitled The Gift, wrote: A hunger comes into your body / So I run to my garden / And start digging potatoes.
Six centuries later, American writer O. Henry published his now-beloved short story The Gift of the Magi. In just over 2,000 words we share a few personal hours in the lives of Jim and Della. They are poor yet each has a single cherished possession. Jim has a gold pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather and to his father. It was a grand watch but he “sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.” Della has long hair that “fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.” She dreamed that if the queen of Sheba lived in an adjoining flat, the sight of Della’s hair would “depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels.” On the day before Christmas, Della sells her hair to buy Jim a “platinum fob chain” that was “worthy of The Watch.” Jim sells the watch to buy Della “The Combs….that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jeweled rims.”
The crucifix, well, that is my story. In the mid-1950s, growing up just outside a small rural community in central Minnesota, I never thought of our family as poor. Maybe we were. But food was adequate if simple; I rotated two dresses for school and a third for church. My siblings and I had shoes for school and church but went barefoot in the summer. There was no such thing as an “allowance” and none of us had our own spending money until we were able to hire out as babysitters or farm help. So in fifth grade of Catholic school I signed up when Sister presented the opportunity to raise money for some far-away mission by selling boxed religious Christmas cards. At the same time, we could earn points toward an item such as a Blessed Virgin medal on a chain or a laminated card with a picture and story of a saint, or a six-inch plastic crucifix. After school in the winter twilight, I knocked on doors along my walking route home and sold enough cards to earn the crucifix. I wrapped it in holiday paper and put it under the tree for my parents. It was the first time I was able to give them a present.
That crucifix hung on a nail in the living room for thirty years. The potatoes, we surmise from the tone of Hafiz’s poem, were eaten with love. We know the fate of Jim and Della’s gifts. Perhaps each of these is an “uneventful chronicle” to use O. Henry’s words. Yet he ends his story with this provocative thought: “The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger….But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest….They are the magi.”
From an economic perspective, Jim and Della’s exchange is a disastrous failure; each risked – and lost – all they had. How then can O. Henry call them “wise”? The answer lies not in mathematics, but in the most altruistic definition of “gift” as something that is bestowed voluntarily, willingly without compensation or the expectation of compensation. Wikipedia expands the definition to refer to “anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favor, including forgiveness and kindness.”
We nod, we smile, we approve of the sentiment. We are happy to accept these quaint, pleasant stories assured they have nothing to do with today’s reality. In fact, today’s gifting model that has become increasingly impersonal and now extends (especially during the holiday season) to people with whom we have a mere transitory acquaintanceship, has become cause for concern among sociologists and psychologists.
In a May, 2006 Washington Post article entitled Dispatch From the Psyche of Giving – Searching for a Sense of Meaning in Gifts, Shankar Vedantam wrote that statistics revealed astonishingly large numbers of Americans return or exchange gifts (more than 50% in some demographics). Another study found that 80% of people said they would prefer to have a charitable donation made in their honor rather than receive something for which they have no need or desire but are given because a giver feels habitually obligated.
Mark Osteen, a professor at Loyola College who published a collection of essays entitled The Question of the Gift, concluded that “At its core, gift-giving involves risk.” Society’s desire to minimize that risk, he notes, is “paradoxically what is causing a devaluation of the gift’s intangible qualities.” So to minimize risk, we have come up with wish lists, registries, gift cards and gift receipts, losing the magic and mystery of anticipation and surprise.
“The very idea of the soul of the gift has been lost,” concluded Antonio Callari, an economics professor at Franklin and Marshall College. Studying the cultural and psychological aspects of gift giving he wrote, “The gift has lost its character as a gift and become a product, a commodity.”
To be sure, gift giving is, and has always been, a complex exchange. In the modern day, with our comparatively increased ability to give, we may be overlooking the more subtle undertones of that complexity. Gifts have been part of human interaction for thousands of years involving ritual and motives that often carried definite and specific expectations. Perhaps our current proclivity for over gifting is simply a natural progression carried forward through the centuries.
In fact, those words we admire so much such as “voluntary” and “no expectation of compensation” may never have been true. In 1925 French anthropologist and sociologist Marcel Mauss published “An essay on the gift: the form and reason of exchange in archaic societies.” His research indicated that central to an exchange in primitive cultures was the concept of obligation. The receiver was expected to accept a gift graciously and, more significantly, was now obliged to reciprocate. He states that gifts are never “free” and “power” is part of the exchange, that power residing not with the object given but with the unspoken contract that establishes an obligation to return the favor, a kind of social debt. Thus a “gift” implies a subtle rearrangement of “power” between social groups and cultures as well as individuals.
The expectation of some kind of return has always been present. Even the gods, in return for the gift of a sacrificed animal, were expected to reciprocate by ensuring success in battle or bestowing favorable weather for crops. In many cultures, a bride’s family gives the bridegroom some form of dowry often with the basic expectation that it will protect the wife against the very real possibility of ill treatment by her husband and his family. Buddhists put food in the beggar’s bowl hoping for favorable circumstances that will help liberate them from the cycle of life’s pain and suffering.
Gift exchanges have been part of diplomacy between nations and sometimes included giving a notable family member in marriage so as to strengthen an alliance and to ensure peace. In today’s global economy, people with international business transactions are expected to be familiar with the gift rituals and etiquette of their trade countries.
We seem to be hard-wired to want to give. Our capacity to step up and pitch in when a crisis, local or global, presents itself is admirable, displaying a generosity that is noble and well-intentioned. Could that largesse encompass clarity toward more equitable distribution on a smaller scale? Can we look – really look – at our “have to” lists and trim them down to the few with whom we have a genuine, personal connection rather than buy into the popular hype that tells us the dozens of places where we “must” or “should” give? Perhaps most challenging, can we, if told that someone does not want a gift or a present, accept that as a liberating opportunity to redirect our purposeful generosity? Or do we, whether due to a sense of guilt or obligation, second-guess that person and insist on buying them that adorable $50 thing-a-ma-jig they will never use?
That same $50 would be used – and appreciated – in circumstances all around us. In our own communities are homeless shelters, teen safe houses, neighbors out of work, animal rescue shelters and many more. If inclined to think globally, there are also many options. For example, through Heifer International, $50 will buy one biogas stove for a family in a country where cooking relies on wood-burning that contributes to chronic lung and eye diseases due to smoke inhalation. Through the Seva Foundation, $50 will cover the cost of cataract surgery, follow-up care and medication in countries such as Nepal, Tanzania, Cambodia and Guatemala.
Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
Perhaps if our understanding of “gift” shifts just a wee bit, we could make such a difference in eliminating some of the inequities that exist within the larger family, the family of humankind.
Eleanor Leonard is a local writer.
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