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"On Gift-Giving"

     A gift may be a form of manipulation.  The giver may be
interfering in the life of the recipient.  "Wear this garment." 
"Display this picture."  "Use this appliance or gadget."  "Read
this book!"
     The clothing for sale in the stores is not intended for the
use of the purchaser.  Those things would never sell that way,
because they are ugly and uncomfortable.  They sell as gift
items.  The purchaser will buy the garment, and give it to
someone else, who may or may not be psychologically mature enough
to say, "It is ugly and uncomfortable."  But the seller won't
care, because he already has the money and is out of the picture. 
     A huge portion of our economy is based on this gift
business, creating unbelievable waste and more heartache than
mortals would need to put up with in a sane society.  Christmas
is the grand climactic event, but Valentine's Day, Easter,
Mother's Day, Father's Day and Halloween are making great
strides, trying to catch up.  So far Groundhog Day and Martin
Luther King's Birthday are in last place in this competition.
     Gifts can interfere seriously with child-rearing, part of
which is, or used to be, teaching character.  Billy's grandmother
misjudged his age and maturity, and sent him a T-shirt for his
birthday, which said on the front there, "Grandma's Boy."  Billy
was far past the stage when that cute little T-shirt would be anything
like appropriate.  But Grandma lived 1200 miles away.
     One day Grandma was on the phone.  Billy's Mom called to
him, "Billy, come thank Grandma for the T-shirt she sent!"
     Billy refused, refused to come to the phone at all.  "You
have to!" his mom growled, holding her hand over the receiver. 
"You have to thank her!"
     "I am not thankful," Billy said, and he would not.
     It took courage on Billy's part.  He had already learned
honesty, from Someone.  What is this?  Is Someone now trying to
teach him to lie?  "To pretend," Someone Else will suggest.  But
my own view is that Billy is right, and we should save make-
believe for mythology and imaginative creativity, not for
corrupting relations between and among real humans.  Somebody has
to help Grandma catch up, and it may as well be Billy.
     But this is tricky.  A friend of mine who is a sculptor
brought us a Christmas gift.  I was a little surprised by it --
it didn't seem to be anything like my friend's best work.  It was
a model of an old dilapidated adobe wall, with an unpainted door
and a rickety screen door.
     Then we figured out it wasn't my friend's work at all, but a
piece by a fellow I had known when he was a boy forty years ago,
when we were neighbors.  I hadn't seen the artist ever in all
those years.  My friend thought I would be pleased that he had
found him and his work.
     But there is a problem.  The piece is ugly.  I don't like
it, and don't want to hang it up anywhere around here.  I'd
rather have one of my friend's own pieces.
     So, what to do with it?  What to say to my friend?  "Thanks
for trying," but that sounds unduly harsh.  Say nothing at all,
but that's not quite honest, even though it is probably least
hurtful.  It amounts to a problem.  The gift creates a problem,
an unpleasantness that I'll have to deal with somehow.
     We gave the piece itself to someone who saw it, admired it,
wanted it.  "Really?" I asked.  "You want it?"
     "It's yours."
     The gift certificate may provide a partial answer, but not
in all cases.  "Hey, I have this gift certificate for clothing
from your store.  But everything you have is ugly and
uncomfortable, so I'll just take the money."  I wonder if that
would work.
     Or, "Hey, I have this gift certificate for books from your
publishing company, but I don't see anything that interests me,
so I'll just take the money!"  Good luck.
     There have been societies in which gift-giving was even more
important than it is among us.  The intent was to impoverish the
giver and humiliate the receiver into having to reciprocate, thus
impoverishing him likewise.
     This is admittedly all very tricky, and I don't pretend to
understand it completely, or to have very good advice.  A couple
of lines from an old poem, "The Vision of Sir Launfal," may help
provide perspective based on common sense:
          "Not what we give, but what we share, 
           For the gift without the giver is bare."

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Copyright © 2001 Harry Willson

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