I’ll kick off with that last resort of hapless students everywhere: looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. (OED.com, accessible by subscription: your library almost certainly has a subscription that you can use from anywhere. It’s incredible.)
I choose to ignore the etymology – from the Old English gift meaning payment for a wife – and instead zero in on the common definition:
A gift is something, the possession of which is transferred to another without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent.
Point A: I don’t know about you, but my first reaction when I read the bit about without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent was ‘Yeah, nice, but…’
When someone gives me a birthday present, I feel kind of obliged to return the generosity when their turn rolls around. It’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but that’s the way things work among normal human beings, isn’t it?
There are a few other rules that I must remember:
- Obviously, don’t buy them exactly the same thing: that would be, at the very least, eerie.
- Also don’t calculate the exact monetary value of their gift and reciprocate accordingly: that would be too much hard work (not to say fraught with complications in our globalised economy).
- And certainly don’t simply return the gift they gave you: that’s tantamount to declaring a blood feud.
But deep down I still feel an obligation to give them something, probably something that I’ve thought a bit about and decided that they’d probably like; something that’s commensurate with what I can afford in terms of time, money and skills, and with what I think of our relationship to each other.
So, good start from the OED, but it doesn’t come near to capturing the whole human comedy of gift-giving.
My next question moves us forward a little further: What sort of things are gifts?
And my first answer when I asked myself this question was: life. (Typical hippie answer, but bear with me…)
Point B: Life itself is a gift, freely bestowed upon us without expectation or receipt of an equivalent – isn’t it?
Did you demand to be born? Did you order your life on Etsy? Did the midwife thrust a bill of sale into your bloodied mitts the moment she cut the umbilical cord?
Oh yeah – this just got deep.
Combining Point A with Point B, we come to question of two parts: Towards whom should we feel the obligation, and how the dickens and dorothy might we begin to reciprocate such an awesome gift?
This post will end with my first essays at answers to this final question:
Honour thy parents, for pity’s sake – after all, they started this whole thing! For you, at least. Unless thy parents were the Adam and Eve, in which case they really did start this whole thing. And, in which further case, while we’re here, I’ve got to tell you: keep your eyes peeled for persuasive reptiles.
How gross is it when people don’t appreciate the gifts you give them? Don’t be that guy.
Don’t forget what you’ve been given, or treat life like an ungrateful douche. Respect this unbelievably awesome gift, make the most of the opportunities that being alive offers you, and use as inspiration the highest hopes of those who gave you life.
Our lives are only possible because of the support of the society around us. Society might be bloody awful – why do we still have enforced borders, 30mph speed limits in built-up areas and no pockets on women’s clothing?
For better or worse, whatever society we live in still sustains us with its housing estates, hospitals, arable farms, Premier League football and branches of Waitrose.
We can show our gratitude by supporting the lives of others around us and helping them make the most of their gifts. (And by cycling when we can.)
It’s in the nature of gifts that they are impossible to repay precisely. Unless you upgrade to God status, you will never be able to comprehend, let alone return, refund or reconstitute all the billions of atoms that your existence has disturbed.
But we can give the gift of life to others through life-saving medicine, emergency rescue or suicide intervention. We can also pass on such a gift to a new generation by starting a family or adopting.
This is probably the closest most people not working for Google will get to God status. We should try not to abuse that power, I guess.
Ultimately, though, our living, breathing, crapping existence is utterly unimaginable without the cosy oxygen of our environment. So our deepest obligation of gratitude surely must be towards the planet on which we live out our ridiculous lives. (NOTE: If you’re Elon Musk, this gratitude extends to the rest of the Solar System / Galaxy / Universe.)
As decent guests of a planet that showers us with inconceivably generous gifts, we have to do whatever we can to show our appreciation. It might not be much – no gift could ever be commensurate – but even a thank-you card would be greatly appreciated.
So let’s go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I’ve-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who’s just been given a wonderful gift.
And let’s make that something a something that we’ve thought a bit about and decided that they’d probably like; something that’s commensurate with what we can afford in terms of time, money and skills, and with what we think of our relationship to each other and to our planet.
Next Week: The Psychology of Gifts and Gift-Giving (it’ll be sciencey). Unless one of you gives me a better idea.