Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Perfect Gift

The cat is sleeping on the bed behind me. An early snow is resting softly on the balcony outside, deaf to my passive-aggressive hints that it take a hike. The kettle has just boiled for my second cup of chai green tea. After a few busy days and weeks, including another research trip to University of Notre Dame, I am back to reading, researching, and thinking about the idea of "gift."
Image from verona1992.blogspot.com

It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Gifts should bring out the child in us, making us ready recipients and willing donors, eager to participate in generous interactions without calculating future obligations or feeling the pressure of expectations. But it turns out that a true gift is really hard to find. Scholars and researchers write about the dark side of gift, the contradictions in gift-giving practices, the evaluation of the gift economy as a system which provides much-needed social cohesion and stability in our relationships, the importance of self-giving, and the near impossibility of separating giving from taking. Sigh. All those things which should be associated with gift - altruism, compassion, love, spontaneity, joy - seem to have faded into the background. It's a bit deflating. But pretty accurate when I think about it.

As Christmas approaches, I am warmed and inspired by the idea of celebrating the greatest, most astounding gift ever (Jesus), but to be honest, that all too often takes second place to feelings of being exhausted and overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, the obligations and expectations of gift-giving, and the stream of family and social events. Call me Scrooge if you want, but I won't accept the moniker. I don't believe I am particularly stingy nor a habitual party-pooper. I think my disillusionment with Christmas, at least in part, stems from a profound desire for genuine gift(s) to be more present in our lives.

One bright light in my reading thus far (there will be more, I am sure...it's early) has been an article by Russell W. Belk entitled, "The Perfect Gift." [1] He is a business and marketing professor who researches the meaning behind collecting, gift-giving, possessions, and materialism. He contends that "the perfect gift symbolizes the giver's agapic love toward the recipient" and the only source of the perfect gift is God. Whoa, Russell! That's crazy stuff for a business professor to be saying! He goes on to say, "When agapic love motivates a gift, it is not selected and given to communicate a calculated message at all, but rather to express and celebrate our love for the other. It is spontaneous, affective, and celebratory rather than premeditated, cognitive, and calculated to achieve certain ends." Keep talking, Russell! I am starting to get excited about giving!

Professor Belk goes on to describe six characteristics of a perfect gift, gleaned from well-known stories in literature and drama which have resonated with people for a century or more. He suggests that people intuitively recognize a perfect gift.

1) The perfect gift involves extraordinary sacrifice, displaying selfless generosity and wholehearted commitment to the other.
2) The perfect gift is motivated by altruism. The other's well-being is truly more important than our own. If the recipient suspects otherwise, the gift is not perfect.
3) The perfect gift is extravagant, having an element of luxury. It is not a necessity, not fulfilling lower-order needs but addressing higher-order needs for love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. The extravagance of the gift is "a tangible demonstration of the richness and depth of the love the giver feels toward the recipient."
4) The perfect gift is appropriate. This means it is not impersonal (like money) but unique and specially suited for the recipient.
5) The perfect gift is a surprise. To ask for a gift negates its value because a true gift is not reciprocal or obligatory. It is not a market transaction nor a disguised self-gift. With a spontaneous gift, there is little doubt that the giver is motivated solely by the desire to please the recipient.
6) The perfect gift results in delight. Any gift given to secure some form of reciprocal action or behaviour is more of a bribe than a gift. It turns out that when creating the perfect gift, receiving is as important as giving. Russell suggests that a gift falls short not because the gift itself is wrong, but because the gift-givers and receivers have become entangled in something other than agapic love.

Now I realize that some may find the above description of the perfect gift rather intimidating, but I find it reassuring. It is an ideal, to be sure, but ideals are what give direction to our lives. We all want to be better at loving, hoping, and creating (to name just a few) and this is why we read inspiring stories and watch movies which tell of courageous men and women. We are pulled forward and upward by ideals. Russell's description of the perfect gift gives me hope. It inspires me to step away from the "have to" and "should" which so often characterize the Christmas season in our North American world and moves me toward cultivating deeper and more genuine love for my family and others. If I give an extravagant gift but have not love, I am nothing. If I give out of obligation, I have entered into a business transaction, not celebrated love.

Let me protect and nourish the child giver in me, the one who does not hesitate to draw wild, colourful creations to present to loved ones, who will spend an afternoon baking lopsided, blue cupcakes to serve to guests, and who will take their own beloved, ragged stuffed bear and give it to another. This is the purity of heart with which I want to give gifts. It will take practice. I will get it wrong sometimes. But it is the only way great skills are developed.

[1] Russell W. Belk. "The Perfect Gift." In Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. Edited by Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996, 59-84.

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