The Gift is NOT in the giving

Photo by asenat29 at Flickr.comMy wife related a story to me recently about a recent experience at a local grocery store. (I don’t know which one, but I hope it wasn’t Weis.) When she reached the cashier the woman was gushing. Evidently, there was a family of four a few places in front of my wife in line, and when the father tried to pay for their groceries his card was repeatedly declined. Seeing this, the woman in line behind them stepped in to pay the bill — over $70. The cashier (from my wife’s description) simply gushed about how the experience “renewed her faith in humanity.” One of those feel-good about people stories, right?

Something about this story struck a chord; I ended up feeling horribly depressed.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that being on the receiving end of these kinds of gifts feels absolutely terrible. If I were in this father’s position I’d not only be dealing with the shame of not being able to pay my own bills, but on top of that the humiliation of having someone else swoop in to steal what little dignity I could retain by suffering the consequences. This humiliation is further compounded when the gift-giver refuses even the possibility of future repayment.

I can imagine the exchange already; I’ve been through enough versions of it to know the script by heart.

“I’ll take care of that.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t mind; I really want to!”

“We’re fine, but thank you.”

“I insist!”

“Well, what’s your address? I’ll send you the money, with interest.”

“You don’t have to do that. It’s a gift. And the gift is in the giving.”

The problem here isn’t the gift itself; it’s the implicit messages carried with the gift. Our society values generosity; unfortunately, we define that as the momentary value of a single (usually monetary) transaction. I am a good person because I give money/time/possessions to my church/the Red Cross/the Salvation Army/Goodwill. My church is good because they run a soup kitchen and give food to the poor. Good = giving freely, right? It’s easy to see how the giver benefits — they feel good, and often get affirmation that they’ve “done the right thing.” Socially, giving gifts is an excellent investment. Not only do you feel better about yourself, but other people feel better about you. After all, if you can give so freely, then you must have excess! Things must be going well! Successful people have the means to give without expecting or wanting anything in return. In other words, successful people are givers; through the tortured logic of the human mind, then, givers must be successful people.

Herein lies the second problem. If successful people are givers, what does that make the person on the receiving end? If that person is in need of such a gift, then there must be a reason they’re not successful. Regardless of whether it’s attributed to bad luck, laziness, gender stereotypes (“women just don’t have what it takes”), racial stereotypes (“blacks just don’t have the drive”), or some combination (“she’s a lazy baby momma welfare queen”), the underlying assumption is that the gift’s recipient needs help because he or she is lacking in something. The gift recipient has nothing to offer. They deserve pity, not respect. Although the gifting takes place in a moment, the labels attached to the roles are permanent — they are statements about the intrinsic nature of the individuals, not comments about their current circumstances.

Together these turn the simple gift of charity into a toxic mess. Not only does the giver gain a sense of superiority and nobility from the act, but also effectively paints the recipient of the gift as a useless human being. It steals the person’s adulthood, rendering them back into a helpless child unable to control their own destiny. The act of giving, instead of being a gesture of generosity as intended, becomes a message of power and domination. In fact, I believe that young adults feel this power struggle most keenly — they are deeply aware of the gifts they have received and continue to receive from the parents during the very time of their lives when they are working hardest to find their own value.

I don’t want to suggest that people give because they’re explicitly trying to make others feel bad or to make themselves feel good. I believe, however, that these outcomes are predetermined based upon how our society understands personal worth (money), giving (good), and taking (bad). However, in our quest to be good people and to feel good about ourselves I think we tend to ignore the effect that these actions can have on others. The statement of the gift becomes a statement about the inherent good nature of the giver. “I’ll take care of that (because I am a good person).” “I don’t mind; I want to (show the world that I’m generous).”

Is it surprising, then, that people will often balk when presented with such an unexpected gift? They don’t want the strings of negative labels that are attached to the gift. “Oh, you don’t have to do that (because I have value and don’t need yours).” “We’re fine (and worthy of respect as human beings), but thank you.” “That’s not necessary (because this situation is an anomaly).” They’re not rejecting the gift itself; they’re rejecting the negative labels that come with it.

From the giver’s point of view, however, the refusal is instead a refutation. They hear “Oh, you don’t have to do that (because you’re not really a good person)” or “We’re fine, but thank you (because you’re not really generous)”. So they press their point (and the gift) harder. “I don’t mind; I really want to (prove that I’m good)!” The recipient still refuses; ultimately, however, that person will probably lose. Often, they want to have the gift; the social cost, however, is hard to bear. The recipient begins negotiating, trying to find a way to accept the gift without the strings — “I’ll pay you back (because this is a momentary lapse, not a way of being — I have value to offer, dammit!)” The giver, however, senses victory, and pushes the point — “You don’t have to do that!” After all, the “goodness” of the act comes from not expecting anything in return; unfortunately, it also deprives the recipient the opportunity to avoid the “badness” that’s automatically applied to him or her. The recipient gains financial aid; in exchange, his or her self-image and social status is damaged.

Is that a small price to pay? I don’t know. In some cases, probably. But I wonder what the implications are for those who, for whatever reason, end up receiving gifts for a very long time? What happens when someone is bombarded and labeled so extensively that those labels become internalized — they start to truly believe that they do not have anything to offer others? What is the mental and social cost to being on welfare or unemployment long term? I cannot believe that the result would be good for that person, nor can I believe that the result would be good for society. This kind of gifting is not even a zero sum game; it diminishes us all.

Is there an alternative, beyond not giving or expecting gifts? What if, instead of refusing reimbursement or repayment, we left it open as a possibility? Not a demand for repayment, or even the expectation of repayment — just being open to receiving something in return. What if we gave the other person the option of giving us something back? After all, we’ve already proven we’re valuable and good; why not go further and allow the other person the chance to gain the same benefit? Instead of a gift you’re offering opportunity — not just a chance to fill a need, but a chance to demonstrate value and contribution too. Better yet, we can offer relationship. We can open ourselves the possibility that those around us can provide us with resources that we didn’t even realize we needed. Just by making the offer we show goodness and generosity; by being open to receiving what the other has to offer, we allow them the same gains. Benefits multiply, and suddenly we are participating in a positive sum game — we both end up richer for the experience.

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