Thursday, December 13, 2018

What makes a good gift?

In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas shopping is kind of a big deal. Small and mid-sized retailers make 20-40% of their annual profits during holiday season. Over 55% of all American consumers participate in holiday sales beginning on Black Friday alone. And, drum roll please, about 25% of Americans are still paying off their Christmas debts from last year (scary!). As I said, it’s a big deal.

There are many reasons for this annual binge in gift purchasing. There’s tradition: it’s just what we do for Christmas, right? And there’s obligation: we don’t want co-workers and extended family members thinking we’re stingy, right? And of course there’s a great amount sincere desire to bless others and mark the holiday as well.

Lost in this craze of finding and buying (and financing!) gifts is a rather important question: what makes a good gift?  There are as many different answers to this question as there are gift purchasers, but here are a few common answers to the above question…

Answer One: It’s helpful.
Utility is often our go-to for gift giving. What does this person need? Surely, if I can correctly identify the need and supply a gift-wrapped solution I will have blessed and served the gift recipient, right? There is much to commend in this strategy, as it seeks the betterment of the other and is not overtly driven by the tastes of the gift giver. However, this strategy of gift purchasing, for all of its pragmatic appeal, usually falls flat. Frankly, most people are not great at determining the needs of others and finding a good solution for them. Remember, nobody likes being fixed! And, the most pragmatic gifts (money and gift cards), do not always indicate a high degree of investment in the gift giving process. While they are always nice, they are not always thoughtful.

Answer Two: It’s what they say they want.
There’s a lot of overlap here with the first answer, the only difference being that this option avoids the “let me fix you” issue. The same issue arises with regard the problem of (potential) thoughtlessness, and, this answer sometimes boils down to a utilitarian agreement in families (“you get me what I want and I’ll do the same for you”). This strategy, while efficient, hardly exudes the Christmas spirit. (It should be noted, however, that if there are “interesting” family dynamics at play this is a safe place to land!)

Answer Three: It’s a surprise.
What this answer really points to is the truth that a good gift brings a sudden, and positive, emotional response. The surprise gift is all about the moment of discovery, and the happiness it creates. I believe all great gifts offer this “moment of discovery.” However, the element of surprise is not enough in and of itself, as we’ve all gotten surprise gifts that were not helpful, not wanted, thoughtless and not good gifts.

Answer Four: It required a sacrifice.
Okay, now we’re closing in on a good answer. If you receive a gift that you know required sacrifice to give you are almost always going to be touched by it. That’s true even if you don’t like the item given. The sacrifice made will make an emotional impact on you and you’ll recognize the significance of the gift. That being said, even sacrificial gifts can flounder, particularly when the actions and attitudes of the gift giver do not align with the sacrificial nature of the gift. When these two are out of line, the gift is met with cynicism and suspicion. If a sacrificial gift is given, therefore, it must be partnered with a relational commitment (more on this below).

Answer Five: It seeks nothing in return.
For many people this is the ultimate answer, and many people believe a true gift requires nothing in return. What is celebrated in this answer is the idea of gift giving as a wholly selfless act, designed only to bless the recipient. Much of philanthropy falls (or wants to be seen as falling) in this category, and the “anonymous gift giver” is often put forward as the ideal gift giver. BUT, there is a major problem with this answer. While this gift giving style avoids some of the obvious pitfalls of bad gift giving (forced reciprocity, exerting relational control, shaming, self-promotion, etc.) it ultimately prevents the gift giving process from arriving at the proper goal, which is explained below…

My Answer: A good gift invites the recipient into deeper relationship with the giver.
Our reaction to the great gifts that we’ve received reveals the answer to our question. What do we do when we get a meaningful or wonderful gift? We immediately go to the giver! We look at them, we smile at them, we hug them, we call them, we write them-  we move relationally toward them. A great gift invites us deeper into relationship with the giver. We feel this invitation given through many of the answers discussed above (sacrifice, helpfulness, no self-promotion, effort in making a surprise, etc.). Furthermore, it is this invitation to relationship which ultimately communicates our value in the eyes of the giver. Their valuing of us, demonstrated by a gift or giving process that invites relationship, is the most significant part of the gift giving dynamic.

If a gift is given without any relational invitation then it will probably not be meaningful to us, and can be potentially offensive. This dynamic is where so much charity, governmental and “mission” work fails, as it is devoid of relational invitation. On the other hand, all sorts of gifts- large and small, surprise or anticipated, helpful or purely sentimental- can be wonderful gifts if they demonstrate to us the desire of the giver to be grow closer to us.

In our next post I will discuss how this concept of gift giving lines up with the Christmas story, and indeed with the gospel as a whole, and how we might leverage it to better love our neighbors.

Until then, and as always, I invite your thoughts, concerns and rebuttals!

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