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COLUMN: The Trouble With Giving

Heights Columnist

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 03:12

When we were young, before either of my two older siblings or I had an income of our own, my parents—or rather, my mom—would buy all the presents for our family’s Christmas morning traditions. This was less about my financial situation as a fourth grader, and more about my ineptitude at gift-giving. To be fair to my siblings and me, it was hard to imagine that my 10-year-old self, concerned mainly with Pokemon cards, N64, and the Pistons’ championship run, should be expected to select a winning gift for my 20-year-old sister, who was concerned with whatever 20-year-old girls are concerned with, or vice versa. To remedy the gifting crisis, every year my mother performed a Christmas miracle, buying presents for each of us from each of us, from her and my father, and occasionally from my grandmothers. 

Shortly after my siblings and I reached the late-teen, mid-20s age of gift drought, our family instituted the out-of-the-hat system of gift exchange. Each of the siblings (a newly added brother-in-law and potential sister-in-law) put his or her name in the hat and drew one to determine whom they would be giving to that Christmas. This Christmas, I pulled my brother-in-law’s name, and I am faced with the same problem I have had for the past several years: How does one buy a gift for someone you only see a handful of times a year? My family is extremely important to me, and we keep in fairly regular contact, but artful gift-giving can only be done when one shares day-to-day life with the loved one for whom you are buying the gift. Ideally, a gift should be something that displays your attentiveness to the loved one, your intentional presence to them and their needs in everyday life. This attentiveness should allow you to quietly note their needs and wants, make a list, and materialize those wishes around the holiday season (or birthday, anniversary, etc.). Hopefully, the people you love know you love them, but giving a good surprise demonstrates the fact that you have been thinking about them in their absence, planning something with just them in mind. For example, one of the best gifts I have ever received was an original, tri-part, minimalist painting of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album art, which was given to me by a friend who not only knew that I loved the Beatles, but had also been attentive, listening to me complain about my lack of decorations for the cement prison block walls of 90 St. Thomas More Drive last year.

If, as I suspect, these kinds of surprise-thoughtful gifts can only be given when you live through the mundane with those closest to you, then we are still left with the problem of what to buy those who are close to your heart but whose day-to-day lives do not overlap with your own. The first reaction, it seems, is to create a caricature of the loved one. For my brother-in-law, there are a few aspects of his life by which everyone identifies him. He is a teacher, an athlete, and a part-time theologian. He would likely enjoy a witty book about teaching languages (as he is a Spanish and math teacher), a Frisbee or pair of cleats, or a book from one of his favorite spiritual leaders. The problem, however, is that almost everyone who knows him, including the nineth graders struggling through their first semester of geometry, could buy this kind of gift. 

Everyone wants to give a gift that demonstrates the relationship is special, that fulfills the need of the giver to feel like a good gift giver. To solve this, there are three options. First, I could ask someone, probably my sister (his wife), for gifts that he wants or needs. This is second-hand intentionality, but intentionality nonetheless. If I bought him the third book of a series in which he had just finished the second, he would know that I had asked my sister for help. The thought is still there, my sister has been present to him, and I cared enough to ask for help. The second option is to give a gift important to me. This option is especially tricky, as it toes the line of selfishness. Giving a gift that shares an important part of myself is an opportunity to build our relationship by sharing what is important to me. This, however, can easily slide into thoughtless gift-giving if I only give gifts I would like to receive. Applying my knowledge of him and our relationship, I could find something I love and think he could gain an appreciation for, offering an opportunity to learn about one another and expand our relationship. The last option is a letter. Telling the person you love that you love them seems the simplest, and perhaps most meaningful,  way you can express the importance of the relationship. And what else are the holidays for if not to bring those you love close to you, share in traditions, make new ones, and remind one another how loved we are?

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.

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