We are not as generous as we think we are. A bold statement, I know. Controversial, even. And true.
A gift is something that is freely given, no strings attached. Even the expectation of a thank you diminishes the generosity of the giver.
How often did I expect something in return for the gifts I gave this Christmas? More than I care to admit. For example, this year I gave my husband gift certificates to a local movie theater. He can choose to take me, or to take his friends. It’s his gift, he can do with it as he pleases. Or so I’d like to think. However, yesterday, he was uncomfortable in his seat. This is what I said:
Here is what was in my head:
Don’t complain because I gave this to you as a Christmas present. You should be grateful.
Pow! There it is, the invisible string!
Thankfully, I did some self-editing and didn’t say that. Still, it severely diminished the generosity of the gift, even if my husband never experienced the full tug of the string attached to the gift.
True gift-giving, which has absolutely no strings attached, is a really tough practice, but is ultimately very freeing. It frees us from resentment, expectation, and disappointment.
It also frees the recipient from obligation.
If we give a gift to someone shouldn’t we expect a thank you? And if they don’t like/can’t use it,shouldn’t we expect them to at least return it for store credit?
Even the expectation of a thank you or a gift exchanged for something they like/can use/fits better, etc. is a string attached. I like to call these attitudes “no strings that are actually strings.”
Here are some examples:
Expectation of thanks (already mentioned). Of course we should always give thanks for a gift received. And teach children to write thank-yous.
Expectation of use, including gift cards. Even gift cards are becoming increasingly exchangeable.
Expectation of an exchange for something they like/can use (already mentioned). Well, if they don’t like what I bought I hope they return it to get something they like.
Expectation of no complaints (ahem!) See above
Expectation that they will think you are awesome because of this fabulous gift you gave them. We want them to like us.
And ultimately, the expectation that they will love and keep the item because you have given it to them. Period. No matter what we say to the recipient, we still want them to keep the gift. We’ll think less of them if they don’t keep it.
All of this brings me to my next point:
Invisible strings make receiving gifts much harder than it should be. A gift, freely given, is never a burden, and should never come with restraints. I put a condition on my husband yesterday when I told him not to complain about the theater seats. This is wrong.
This year, I really didn’t want much for Christmas, but I know my family wants me to open up presents for Christmas, so I suggested gift cards to yoga and knitting classes, some consumable items like luxury soap and gourmet olive oil and balsamic vinegar. These are things that I love and will use. Some family members told me very simply they don’t like to give gift cards, even if the recipient loves them.
Okay, so, in addition to getting the gifts I already suggested, I also received some beautiful sweaters. None of which I needed. Rather than returning them to the store to get something else I did not need (true, I could return them and get store credit toward a future purchase) I decided that I would donate them to a local parish outreach. Why shouldn’t poor women wear beautiful clothing that also keeps them warm?
This decision was not without it’s controversy in my house. While I have absolutely no desire to hurt my family’s feelings, I do want to extend their generosity. They have so generously given to me that I want to pay it forward and perhaps brighten the day of someone who only gets secondhand clothing.
And should they so desire, they can throw the clothing away, no strings attached.