The Perfect Gift

My love don’t give me presents, I know that she’s no peasant… ” Lennon/McCartney

‘Tis the season.

The season of racking your brain to guess what the perfect gift would be for your friend or loved one, then putting yourself through the wringer to obtain it. What a way to ruin a perfectly good pagan solstice ritual.

I guarantee this blog will annoy many of you. Most of you, no doubt, participate joyfully in the gift giving tradition. Bless your hearts. I’m not criticizing you one bit. Just please do not include me on your gifting list.

“What?” you say, “He doesn’t like getting gifts? What person in their right mind doesn’t like being gifted? He doesn’t like giving them? What a selfish Scroogian grinch.”

Kindly reserve judgement until the end of this tome, then judge to your heart’s content.

The gifting process is so fraught, it’s no surprise that my favorite comic strip, Miss Manners, receives endless requests for help dealing with that emotional minefield.

Most people consider gifts an essential aspect of relationships. They resign themselves to the stress that is part and parcel to this socially mandated activity. My spouse and I handle that stress the same way we handle any avoidable stress.

Avoidance.

Don’t take this to mean we’re cheapskates. We generously gift our kids and grandkids. Always with filthy lucre. Sorry Miss Manners, gauche though that may be, unlike the useless junk many foist on their loved ones, our cash never fails to delight. We also donate to charities. We’re glad to give the gift of our time when friends ask for help, believing a timely favor is much more valuable than any object. (Well, except maybe the Hope Diamond. But, like many gifts, that bauble also comes with a curse.)

There is one gift, though, that is even more valuable than a favor. It’s sincere verbally expressed praise, love, empathy and understanding. Best of all, you always have these on hand and don’t need to go shopping for them.

My wife and I have had a “no gifts” pact for decades. We agree there are better ways to express your feelings about a person than by buying some doo-dad they probably don’t want or need; many better ways to spend your time than running around searching for the “perfect” gift.

The last time I tried to give my spouse a gift was on the occasion of our 25th anniversary. She’s a jewelry designer, so I thought a diamond she could set in a piece of jewelry for herself would please her. She told me if I felt the need to give a gift at all, she would much prefer a drill press. I happily abandoned the offer and she happily proceeded to purchase the drill press of her dreams.

From then on, the understanding was we were both free to buy anything for ourselves that we truly wanted or needed whenever we wished, instead of having to guess at what the other wanted. The only thing worse than giving a person a gift they don’t like is watching them pretend to like it. Not wasting good money and the time it takes to shop, an activity neither of us enjoys, are gifts in themselves.

Not only do we eschew mutual gifting, but we also tend not to make a big deal out of “special days.” For us every day is a gift and no day is more special than each morning we wake up alive, well and together. Anniversaries, birthdays and the like involve a nice dinner together, usually home cooked, and a toast to our mutual good fortune at having been born and having met. Rarely is anyone else involved. So much do we dislike doing things that contain a sense of obligation that we often, intentionally, don’t even celebrate on the actual date of the occasion.

The only holiday we fully enjoy is Thanksgiving. Good food, no gift exchanging (thank God) and no religious gobbledegook (thank God.)

Our daughter has been well trained to ignore our birthdays as well as the pseudo-holidays of Mother’s and Father’s day. We never inform friends of our dates of birth unless they ask. Fortunately, most don’t.

For years we went out with two couples to celebrate the birthday that was the same for the wife of one and the husband of the other. It happened to fall so close to mine that often we wound up doing it on my birthday. We sang happy birthday to the other two and never revealed our private little joke. It provided a delectably perverse secret pleasure.

In order to really understand this apparently off the wall attitude you have to consider my professional background. A big part of it involved teaching people to express themselves clearly and honestly in words alone.

While my personal experiences shaped my attitudes on gifting, my profession reinforced them. In analytic therapy, which is the type I often employed, if a patient offers a gift, the rule is to express appreciation for the thought but, instead of accepting the object, to inquire as to what had prompted the person’s desire to bestow it.

Once they got over expressing their initial disappointment, this usually led to productive discussions regarding their perceptions, wishes, and fears about our relationship. This led into their deeply held negative assumptions about their worthiness to be loved. Seeing themselves as having nothing valuable to offer me, they felt the need to give gifts. (or in some cases other, even less appropriate, offerings.) If treatment was effective, they came around to learning that, in healthy relationships, the greatest gift, the greatest expression of love, is to freely share one’s genuine thoughts and feelings–in words–and the greatest gift one can receive is nonjudgemental acceptance and appreciation.

By not accepting a material symbol that short circuited that whole process, I prompted them to explore their negative assumptions about themselves and the fear of rejection underlying their difficulty establishing solid, healthy relationships in general.

The only exception I made to this policy was with very unstable people who would be devastated by the perceived rejection. This would likely have lead to their cutting off treatment prematurely. It could even lead to suicide. It took me 20 years of accepting gifts from one such person before they finally reached the point that they could tolerate my rejecting the gifts without experiencing it as a rejection of themselves. Their improvement from that point on was astounding.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so on the occasion of my retirement I accepted presents from grateful patients along with handshakes and a few hugs. Fortunately no one gave me cigars.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t give and receive gifts. That’s not for me to judge. Sometimes gift exchanges are so expected, it’s bad manners not to participate. When someone takes it upon themself to proffer a gift, I swallow my annoyance, accept graciously and take the trouble to reciprocate when the occasion arises. Those who know and love me the best, though, spare both of us the trouble of a futile search for the “perfect gift” that would likely be a disappointment anyway.

No material object can match the gift of mutual respect, consideration and affection, or the most valuable gift of all, an open channel to the unique person residing within each us.

Miss Manners tells people who receive gifts that a hand written thank you is required, but I’m more tempted to write a thank you when people care enough to not give me one in the first place.

4 Comments

  1. I agree that giving, especially at Christmas, has been overdone. A personal peeve–when did “gifting” and “gifted” replace “giving” and “gave”? To me, gifted suggests talented: “She is a gifted pianist, so I gave her a ticket to the concert.”

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  2. I gift myself all the time & thoroughly enjoys my gifts. I often gift my friends with fun times & baked treats! Complimenting others & just being super friendly to new acquaintances is also a gift I enjoy giving. But just buying a trinket because you’re suppose to gift if not hand made or given from the heart is, like you said, something you just accept and re-gift afterwards. So I agree – spending quality time with others is the true gift 💝

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  3. Please don’t tell Chester. He brings me flowers every Friday, has them on the first day of any trip (at the hotel), and we dine out for the birthdays and anniversary.

    I even send holiday greeting cards because I love people.

    I respect the decisions you and Sandy have made, but I’m not changing my approach to the holiday. I have Amazon and Etsy and at least 1K catalogs at my fingertips for gift giving.

    Psychic hugs to you both. That’s my gift to you!

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