December 20, 2012
We're in the last few days before Christmas, and I think I'm not the only one who feels as if, no matter what I do, I'm not going to be ready.
I also think I know why. Whether you have a lot of money to spend on gifts, or very little, or none at all, there's the nagging feeling that whatever your gifts are, they aren't enough.
Either they're not good enough, or there aren't enough of them.
In other words: They won't do.
And that's because there is no gift that will "do."
Do what, anyway? What is it that our gifts are supposed to accomplish?
Do you really think there's some thing you can wrap and put under a tree that will transform the life of the recipient? Convert them from misery to happiness, from grief to joy, from loneliness to a sense of belonging to a wonderful community?
Well, maybe a bit of that last thing. Because there are gifts that can show that you really know the recipient, that they belong.
That's one of the reasons that, even though gift certificates can be wonderful gifts, they aren't ever really the perfect gift. Yes, the recipient can choose exactly what item to buy, so you know it will suit them; but since you didn't make that "exact right" choice, the gift certificate does not convey that sense of being known by the giver.
A gift, even a poorly chosen one, says at least this much: "I feel a desire/need/obligation to give you a gift, and I spent a certain amount of time and thought, and here's what I came up with."
Sometimes a gift says, "Here's what I think you ought to want."
Here are some other possible messages:
"This is what I know how to make. Here's one for you."
"This is what all the cool people give, and I'm so cool I'm giving you one."
"I have so much money, I can afford to give one of these to you."
"This is what I'm giving to everybody, and you're on my list."
"I really hate giving gifts, but here goes."
"I think you're still 6/11/14 years old."
"Your house isn't full yet. Here's something to stack somewhere."
Don't get me wrong: Not one of these is a bad thing. Because at least these messages are given in the form of a gift. It speaks well of our society that our retail economy is, in many sectors, completely driven by Christmas sales.
What do you think a "perfect" motive for giving a gift would be? Altruism?
I hate the whole idea of altruism, the way so many people use it. The idea often is that if you receive any benefit from giving a gift or a service to someone else, then it isn't really altruism.
So if you do something for somebody and then feel good about it, it somehow negates the value of the gift. Somebody sees you helping somebody or giving a gift and they say, "Oh, I bet that made you feel warm all over."
Doesn't that attitude just make your skin crawl? As if the only way for a gift to be truly generous-hearted is if you feel awful about giving it.
Maybe donating organs counts – if it's an organ you only have one of. Maybe if you die giving the gift, these people will be satisfied.
The truth is that you should feel good about giving a gift, and the more thoughtful and personal and individual and needed-or-wanted the gift is, the better you should feel about it.
There's no requirement that it hurt you or cost you more than you can afford. There's no requirement that a gift be a terrible sacrifice.
The only "sacrifice" that matters is that you spend enough time and effort to find out what gift might be appropriate and welcomed by the recipient – even if the result is a gift certificate.
For instance, a gift certificate to a nice restaurant can be the perfect gift for a young married couple who rarely get a chance to go anywhere nice. (It's even better if it's accompanied by baby-sitting, if you're giving the restaurant gift certificate to a couple who have babies.)
But heed this word of warning: Ask the restaurant in advance if the certificate or gift card can be applied to the tip. If it can't, then you are not really giving a gift, because the recipients either have to take cash out of pocket to leave a tip, or they have to stiff the waiter – and where's the pleasure in that?
Any restaurant whose gift certificates can't be used for the tip doesn't actually have gift certificates – they have prepaid discount cards. Even if the discount is 80 percent (i.e., everything except a good tip), it still requires the recipient to pay.
A gift certificate to a videogame store or bookstore is almost always best if you haven't received an actual request for a particular game or book. (And if there has been a request, you have to make sure someone else hasn't heard, and acted on, the same wish!)
For a home handyman, Lowe's gift certificates can be exactly right.
So ... if you know the recipient is a reader or a gamer or a fixer-upper, the certificate is a thoughtful, individual gift.
And given the way this economy is going, if you know somebody is struggling to pay bills and hasn't had a dime of discretionary income in a long time, then even a general department store gift certificate – Target, Belk's, Macy's, Wal-Mart – can be a personal gift:
Here, use this to buy something that isn't on your list of gotta-buys. Have a few minutes of freedom to choose.
Some people say of gift certificates, "It's the same bad taste as if you just handed them money." But I disagree. Such gifts can still communicate to the recipient: "I know you, I care about you, I want you to have the pleasure of choosing something you'll value."
And yet. Good as they can be, these are not the best gifts. The best gifts are the ones that say, "I know you so well that this is exactly what you will love" – and they're right.
You open that gift with a gasp of delight. You may not even have known that you wanted the thing. You might not even have known that such a thing existed. And yet there it is, proving that the giver of the gift saw at least a little way into your heart, and did what it took to bring you joy.
Sometimes such a gift is extravagant. Sometimes it's very simple. Sometimes it's expensive. Sometimes it's free.
But it's always rare.
If, over the course of your whole life, you can give such a gloriously-right gift to five different people, or achieve such gift perfection twice for the same person, you are among the greatest of givers.
Often such gifts are achieved partly by chance. You hoped the other person would like it; you had no idea how much it would mean.
Don't ever tell them that you had no idea that it would mean so much. Just be glad they were so glad to get it.
And then for heaven's sake don't expect yourself to ever equal that gift, let alone top it, in subsequent years.
And if someone gives you such a perfect gift, be grateful and show it – but don't let yourself feel bad, even for a moment, that your gift to them isn't equally perfect. The odds against that happening are astronomical.
In fact, the sheer obviousness of your joy at their gift is the reward to the giver. You're saying to them: You nailed it.
There is no way the gift you gave them is going cause them as much joy as they'll feel from knowing how much you loved their gift to you....continued on page 2