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The Gift

Overcoming the dark side of generosity

by Skye C. Cleary and John Kaag

The holidays are supposed to be about reconnecting with family, generosity, and celebrating Santa’s birthday. Or Jesus’. For others, it’s supposed to be about the rededication of, and to, a sacred temple. But it’s not. Instead, it’s a dreidel-spinning, holly-wreathed distraction from the meaninglessness or loneliness of everyday existence. It’s a dreaded chore, filled with stressful shopping, hidden disappointment, and feigned joy. It is the season of vacuous gifts. It is supposed to be a season of amazement, and it is: people who are supposed to know you best turn out to be completely clueless. Or worse – you discover that the gift is the ultimate weapon.

Zombie-like feeding of the consumerist monster is the standard objection to holiday gift-giving. Yet there’s another, darker side to generosity: when it’s used as means of exercising power over another. We are expected to be appreciative of gifts, regardless of whether they’re wanted or thoughtful. A gift from an abusive spouse or parent can be a means of disarming the abused, or manipulating him or her into continued submission. Gift-giving can also easily turn into a competition to see who can give the best or most expensive one.

This latter approach to gift-giving has ancient roots. For example, as Marcel Mauss describes in The Gift, the potlatch is a Northwest Pacific Coast tribal ritual where some clan leaders would give away lavish amounts of merchandise such as clothes, canoes, and weapons in a display of wealth. It was partly about generosity, but often the merchandise was destroyed, making it much more about reinforcing the giver’s status and prestige at the top of the social hierarchy. Beneath the destruction, according to Mauss, was the simple fact that potlatch “gifts” were not gifts at all – they were given by people so powerful, so wealthy, that they could afford to burn their goods. Potlatch – and modern winter holidays – often celebrates this wealth.  And that doesn’t seem good at all.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre uses the potlatch as an example of how the heart of gift-giving is not generosity, but rather possessiveness. Consider the ugly ornament that your in-laws gave you years ago that you feel that you have to bring out and display in a prominent position every time they visit to avoid an awkward conversation as to why they saw something very similar in the window of a second-hand shop a few months ago. Sartre’s take on this would be that your in-laws relish this form of gift-giving in two ways. One, they enjoy possession of the ornament precisely because they are able to give it away; and two, they enjoy the fact that you are obliged to keep this object, this part of their existence, that they don’t want for themselves – at least in close proximity. Giving thus construed is a way for the giver to enjoy the object, as well as a way to hold power over the recipient.

Sartre often gave away so much of his money that he would have to search his apartment for change to buy coffee. He didn’t see this as generosity, though. He gave because he didn’t want to be enslaved by possessions – one reason why he never owned an apartment in Paris – but was quite happy for others to feel grateful and indebted to him. True generosity isn’t easy, and Sartre was sceptical that we could ever overcome the desire to possess one another, but there are a few solutions to this dilemma.

One, we can reject the obligation to be appreciative of gifts we don’t like. There is the risk of being cast as ungrateful, but if the giving truly is about generosity, then one way to show respect for this principle is for gift-givers to include return receipts with the gift, to show that it’s more about giving and less about the object that the giver has chosen to impose on the recipient.

Another solution is to agree to no holiday gifts – especially for adults. It’s difficult to get consensus on this, since some people genuinely love gift-giving. And if consensus can’t be reached, it can result in the worst of all possible worlds: one in which an uncle refuses to accept gifts (or returns everything he receives) but gives lavishly. Trust us, the asymmetry of this situation is not one of good tidings. The no-gift approach also teeters on the brink of Grinchdom, since there’s always the suspicion that the person who suggests it is being cheap or lazy or both.

Alternatively, give experiences instead of material goods. Commune instead of transact. In words of the Jesuit monk Thomas Merton – love is not, love will never be, a package. It is, instead, a message: “I love you.” In Merton’s words,

We do not become fully human until we give ourselves to another in love.

To give packages as tokens of love creates a profound confusion, a type category mistake that can never be resolved. Yes, there is growing research to suggest that experiences are better than things – measured in terms of happiness, excitement, and meaning. But that isn’t really the point. If you want to show your love in a gift, give something that money can’t buy.

Give something priceless – like attentiveness. It’s all too easy to be snowed under with social media, work, and indiscriminate busyness, that the most valuable gift we can give is not just time – since this too can turn into a burden, if not a tyranny – but being attentive to a loved one. Of course, we should be attentive all the time, but that is hardly the case. Real attention, the type that is a true gift, entails losing oneself in another’s concerns and desires, sacrificing what we often regard as most precious – ourselves. “As we deepen in love,” Merton tells his reader,

the package becomes less and less important until it becomes unimportant altogether. What matters is this infinitely precious message which we can discover only in our love for another person.

Don’t pay for packages, just pay attention. In this age, perhaps that is the greatest surprise.

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Skye C. Cleary is the Managing Editor of the APA Blog, author of Existentialism and Romantic Love, and teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.  John Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of many books including American Philosophy: A Love Story.

This article was originally published with the Independent and has been republished here with permission.

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