Many years ago, on Christmas Eve, a friend discovered to his dismay that it was the day before Christmas and he had yet to procure any gifts for his recently-wedded wife—a sense of desperation that some of us can surely empathize with, despite months of watching our wives or mothers stockpiling carefully chosen gifts that are agonized over, purchased, agonized over some more, and finally wrapped with a prayer of appreciation. In a fit of desperation, my friend drove off to local department stores shortly after the sun had set, mere hours before they were to close until Boxing Day. Perusing the barren aisles of an Arlington Target, he settled on what he felt was an adequate gift: a disassembled set of shelves in a pristinely-taped cardboard box. Christmas morning arrived and he sheepishly produced the box and received a surprising response of thankfulness, only to see the boxed shelves make their way to the basement, where they collected dust until it was time to move several children later, and were eventually placed with the garbage to be picked up by Waste Management, destitute and unused. These many years later, he still thinks of those shelves on occasion. And despite being a teacher whose coffers are rarely comfortable, gifts are now gathered with care.
It may seem peculiar to consider the art of gift giving post-Christmas, but with a new year upon us (an annual opportunity to resolve anew) and Christmastide now in the rearview mirror, it is an appropriate time to take stock of how we give, with the benefit of hindsight serving as a worthy guide, in the hopes of improving our gift-giving capabilities in the months and years ahead. After all, we need not wait until the end of December to be generous! This is not to cast aspersions at those who exchanged gifts poorly over the past thirty days nor to highlight those who did not attempt to give at all, but rather to examine our gift-giving consciences in general, to consider if we are good at gift giving or perhaps have some work to do in this particular category of expressing love and appreciation.
Because, let’s acknowledge the truth of the matter: boys do not necessarily excel at gift giving, let alone the men that they become. It is in fact sometimes considered a feminine talent—unfairly, even given the gentler sex’s natural proclivity to such gestures—leaving faux-macho men on the sidelines, reveling in their ineptitude, and adding to a rather accurate depiction of an actual “toxic” masculinity that is rooted in a societal message that gentleness and thoughtfulness are effeminate traits. Yet were we to delve beyond the crust of machismo, one finds that a certain danger lurks in the presence of thoughtful presents and a great weakness in one’s failure to know a person well enough to give adequately.
In a piece here a couple of months ago, discussing the benefits of engaging in backcountry expeditions, I commented briefly on how we could learn much by observing the mosquitoes of Minnesota, even if their incessant buzzing and blood-sucking can prevent us from truly attaining a contemplative state. The idea that I put forward was that we could grow in humility simply by appreciating the love God has for each of them—that if He can, in His infinite wisdom, pay attention to each of these individual tiny creatures, then surely He is doing the same manifold for each individual human person. Extending that consideration one step further, one notices that in recognizing each individual mosquito and its particular, distinguishable buzz, God likewise appreciates and loves each of us and our incredibly unique individual souls. To each of us too, He has given singular gifts that, yes, may have similarities, but when placed into the grasp of each individual person, flourish in their own ways, led out by parents and teachers alike. These gifts are chosen and given with the utmost love and a desire for good use; a proper use whose benefits can grow exponentially. But humans that we are, embedded with an inherent ability and desire to name things, we often fall prey to a lazier naming ritual and begin putting the different gifts—and persons—into categories that limit and diffuse the illimitable potential of each human being, thus separating the soul from the talents or struggles.
Categories and Comparisons
Categories are not always formed out of malintent but are often misappropriated, and they distract from the individuality of each person. Families are the most basic category, but any parent will be able to point out the many differences among their children; differences that can be expounded by all sorts of occurrences from difficult pregnancies to birth order to sibling teasing and bullying. Inattentive—or even simply exasperated—parents may also note the differences, but rather than embracing the uniqueness, will wish the more difficult (or less understood?) ones were more like the “easier,” more placid children. The latter are placed on pedestals, meeting the expectations of the parents, and the former are considered difficult ones or so routinely told to improve that any conversation with Mom or Dad is met with a feeling of dread. More attention is paid to the well-behaved ones, leading to a growing sense of forgottenness by the rambunctious ones, who respond in kind. Soon, a father may have a favorite, “a rose amongst brambles,” a rose who, by comparison, all others pale; a far cry from the Heavenly Father who loves each mosquito as it is and as it was created. The leap from categories to comparisons is thus not a great one: Billy is smarter than all his brothers, Johnny is a mess, Charlie is hopeless, and Suzie is a ditz but we’re hoping she marries wealthy; he’s my athletic kid and she’s the smart one; or to the ten-year-old, “You’re so lazy, if only you could be like your older sister who wakes up at 5 a.m. to do math problem sets and then goes for a run!” Of course, categories and comparisons turn into a sour mixture when they invade family life, just as things turn ugly when poorly-contrived categories and comparisons are injected into academia, the workplace, or society at large. But I digress. I leave Fr. Mike Curtin, a deceased former chaplain at The Heights, with the last word on the comparison conundrum: “The Lord finds comparisons odious!”
Gifts. They come in all different forms, even if we often think of them as being wrapped in paper, tied in twine, or topped with a jaunty bow. But what constitutes a good one? At the macro level, there are three elements that are necessary.
A good gift begins by recognizing the person to whom it is being given; not simply boy or girl, man or woman, but the individual—the person’s likes and wishes, the person’s interests and desires, the person’s needs, the person’s place in life, the manner in which the person shows affection, the manner that a person desires to receive affection. In short: something that will show the receiver that “I know you” whether it is fully or only partly, and at the very least, “I recognize you, I see you.”
Following this recognition, as gift givers, we can ask ourselves, “Is this gift useful?” This is not to say that tools are the only worthwhile gifts, though for the right person, they could be a good one. Rather, will the person I give this gift to see worth in what I am giving? Will the gift help them in some way? For example, a little gift that is an easy go-to for an important lady is a bouquet of flowers. To an unappreciative man, flowers may be useless; but to a woman, flowers demonstrate that the man thinks the woman is worthy of receiving beauty. If she is worthy of receiving something beautiful, then she must be beautiful. The use of the flowers is chiefly in the message, but secondarily in the beauty they bring to a room, where they serve as a daily reminder to the woman of the affection and admiration held for her by the man. (On this subject, the danger here is one of laziness. I’m reminded of a now-grandmother who complained to me that her husband had been buying her roses for forty years and “I don’t even like roses.”)
And from here, does the gift serve some higher Good—that is, will the gift slot into a needed spot or is it yet another possession to be counted but left unused? Will the gift enhance beauty or will it be an occasion for vanity? Will the gift help the person grow or will it deepen an attachment to comfort? Will it loosen some bonds or tighten some? From these three overarching themes, in many ways the world is in the palm of the giver, though a hefty dose of thoughtfulness and consideration, mixed with a healthy dollop of confidence, must be shaken together to produce a good gift.
But—in homage to this platform’s director—we should consider a few more practical aspects of gift giving. A few things to seek and a few others to avoid. On the positive side of the spectrum, we should always be excited to give the gift that we choose—perhaps, even with a temptation of keeping it for ourselves. A healthy pride in our gift(s) is not a bad thing. In this vein, we should seek to be creative, thinking of things that the receiver may not think or know they need rather than picking the something we know they want or something that was put on a list. Budget constrictions? Shop sales, make something, give time, write a letter, embrace the limitations. One of my sisters once received a large wall calendar for which she expressed appreciation, and for the next several years, despite her “Advent Buddy” (my family’s version of Secret Santa) changing each time, she annually received the same calendar. By the fourth year, not only was she annoyed, but she rightly felt that the gift had run its course. And we must also seek humility—if we are truly stuck in choosing a gift, perhaps because we don’t know the receiver as well as we could or should, it is okay to ask a mutual friend or relative of that person for assistance. And on that note, maybe the person to whom we’re giving gifts genuinely needs a few more pairs of woolen socks.
As for things to avoid, personal preference plays a significant role. For example, rare is the man who enjoys a box of milk chocolates, and more common is the one who enjoys a bottle of bourbon or scotch; yet I have a teetotaling friend who annually receives whiskey whilst he would prefer chocolates or ice cream. Notecards are always a simple option too: not only does the world need more postmarked letters, but they are also easily personalized—Paul Nicklen photos for the oceanographer, Magritte prints for the ophthalmologist, and native birds for the ornithologist. For some, several little presents are preferable to one of comparable price, while others would simply prefer to spend quality time with the giver on a special date, as simple as coffee after Mass at the little cafe around the corner. Some people like things wrapped and others prefer to receive gifts of service. Ultimately, we can ease the pain of a misbegotten gift simply by avoiding giving what we want to receive and really thinking about what the receiver might enjoy receiving and what would be a good thing for them to receive. A bookworm-introvert-homebody might not want to receive tickets to a raucous, sold-out Taylor Swift concert, despite our most fervent desires to hear the country/pop/folk/rock star perform.
That all being said, it takes vulnerability and a leap of faith to be a good gift giver, and as receivers, we must strive, despite potential disdain for the choices made, to acknowledge even the most minimal effort made on the giver’s part. This is hard. We cannot toss it back in the giver’s face, or burn, or throw away what is given. At the very least, we still write that thank you note, or give a hug, or choose some other slightly more awkward route like a little head nod or a back slap, followed by, “Ahh, a package of batteries. I can always use Triple As. Thanks, Dad.” In several years—if we did not already blurt out our disgust in the moment, “not another freaking tin of chocolate blueberries!”—we might gently say, “You know, now that I’m a twenty-eight-year-old man, I’m not really a fan of sweet little dainties.” And if the present is truly off-base, perhaps it can be repurposed in some way, like re-gifted to a person who did not give the gift, or returned in favor of some more relevant item. Of course, all things being equal, a simple thank you note is often all that is necessary. Humility, after all, goes both ways.