I asked a granddaughter to describe her favorite gifts. They were those that led to discovery, that made her smile, or that helped her feel recognized and understood. She described receiving two clean mayonnaise jars for her birthday, one labeled “Quotes” and the other “Happiness.” Inside the “Quotes” jar, her friend had placed 100 handwritten quotations on brightly colored post-it notes, each folded in half. The “Happiness” jar was empty. An Instruction Sheet told my granddaughter to keep the jars on a shelf and, when she felt sad or angry or frightened or otherwise out of sorts, she was to dip into the “Quotes” jar and pull out a post-it. It could remain affixed to a shelf or wall in her room until she felt better. Then she was to refold it and place it in the “Happiness” jar, available for future re-use, should she want it again. My granddaughter rarely needs to dip into her “Quotes” jar, but she assured me that every time she had needed a lift, the quotation – and the love and creativity that permeated the gift – helped her regain perspective and count her blessings.
In our culture, holiday celebrations have become nearly synonymous with the idea of “giving,” and too often with giving gifts. As noted last week, Remembering is a first step. It must precede Celebrating and most definitely comes before conscious giving.
In order to focus on the expression of loving by “giving” that ranges beyond a specific occasion or material present, we need to ask what we might be able to give that would have value to our loved ones.
What might we give?
- Experiences. My favorite gifts are experiences that will delight my loved ones, whether they are for him or her alone — perhaps a special class to take or ticket to a performance they have been yearning to see — or to be shared, like a dinner out or a trip.
- Caregiving. Sometimes the best way to give is to provide help, either directly through offers of dish-washing or babysitting, or indirectly, with something like a gift certificate for a massage or yoga class. This year my husband and I bought ourselves a stationary bicycle, investing in each other’s health. The stresses of the winter of 2017 called for more exercise than either of us was getting and we knew the bike would improve our individual well-being and therefore our relationship. The joint gift itself was material, but it also required our commitments to invest in our own wellness.
- Time. Often the best way to give is the gift of time. Time to listen. Time to share. Time to help with practical demands of everyday life, like driving a child or grandchild to a class or event or marketing or cooking or doing whatever you are good at, such as tending plants or making minor repairs around the home. Providing emotional or instrumental support has such great benefit that it is associated with longevity, gifts that keep on giving.
- Attention. Being attentive is a wonderful way to give. By its claim on your energy, your focus, your time, it shows you care. It is a form of care-giving that goes beyond. Not only are the needs of the loved one front and center, but awareness of ways in which you can better appreciate him or her makes the relationship itself a major contributor to the gift’s positive impact. A variation is giving by expressing affection, often through Touching.
- Presents. The most concrete gift is one that can be bought or possibly home-made. It can announce that you gave some thought to honoring the one you love. It can be something deemed necessary, symbolic, or indulgent. On the other hand, a gift that is bought to impress the recipient with the giver’s taste or wealth or generosity is not about the recipient; it is a statement about the donor. Those gifts do not demonstrate love but are bids to show power or to manipulate. They are transactional. A gift selected to express understanding of who the recipient is and what he or she might value comes with no strings. When I spotted an elegant bow-tie, deeply discounted, I purchased it for my husband. He loves wearing hats that make others smile, so I was pretty sure he would be delighted with the bow-tie. He was.
- Words. We also give to others through our language and discourse. What we give can have a range of impacts — in a later post I will discuss Speaking — but sometimes words, with or without actions that are consistent with them, are the only expressions a person can give or receive. This situation is confusing. As noted in Proverbs 18:21, “Words are powerful”.
How do you give?
- Style of giving. Before they stop to think about it, people automatically give in a style learned through their family of origin. If love was expressed by giving experiences, care-giving, time, attention, material possessions, or words, those ways of giving were modeled by the important adults in a child’s world. The child assumes they are the ways to express love. Once conscious of additional options, the style of giving, as outlined below, can change along with its contents.
- Anonymously, in a group, or with recognition. When a child discovers a token left under the pillow to applaud a lost tooth, the child feels loved. Whether the tooth fairy or a parent gets credit is irrelevant. This “anonymous” gift sends a powerful message of acknowledgement. Some giving can only come from a group. For example, coworkers who organize a baby shower or retirement event; friends who plan a surprise party; neighbors who chip in on a big-ticket item, expressing love for the honoree. And some people prefer to give only when their identity is recognized, not necessarily so that they can feel proud of themselves, but so that they can feel reassured that the beloved knows they wanted to send the message “I love you.”
- Privately or publicly. In a related vein, giving can be a very personal and private affair or one that declares one’s love for the beloved to the world. How do you feel about marriage proposals made in intimate settings as compared to those designed to shout the commitment and have others share in the beginning of a deepening phase of a relationship?
- Predictably or by surprise. Some people love surprises — giving and receiving them — and others do not like them one bit, preferring the anticipation of what a holiday or other celebration might bring. My husband likes nothing more than to catch me off-guard with something he knows I will love — a bouquet of flowers, a note that he did a task I had been dreading doing myself, a scarf that catches his eye and he can’t resist it because he knows the colors are perfect for me. While some people prefer spontaneous giving, others would rather plan; some lean to instinct and others to research.
Why do we give?
- Motivation for giving varies and it affects the way in which the gift is received. Is the gift meant to impress, seduce, help, inspire, reassure, provide for, comfort, or bring pleasure?
- Capacities for imitation and empathy emerge remarkably early in life. Given stable and nurturing care-giving, children naturally want to give others the comfort and pleasure that has been given to them. The secure attachment that allows an infant to receive with trust also equips the toddler to give to others with delight. Some children, born with a strong “agreeableness” gene, are hard-wired to want to help all others, to give to them. Giving to those they know is gratifying but so is altruism, giving to those they do not know out of an intrinsic sense of connection to other human beings. They instinctively volunteer in order to improve the world.
- Transactions. Of course, some people do give on a transactional basis. One of my patients called it “counting the black jellybeans” – or making sure that everyone received and gave equally.
- So people can give to feel good themselves, to please another, or to receive. If a couple can appreciate and honor ways in which each person likes to give — and be given to — their relationship promises to be better filled with messages that show “I love you”.
What motivates you to give? What is your preferred mode of giving? And what do you most appreciate receiving? If they are different, how do you understand that difference?
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