It was at least 45 years ago, but I remember it like it was last week. Funny what the mind holds on to.
An unwanted gift
It was the Christmas service at the small church where I grew up. There was a nativity play and some carols, and then we opened presents.
All the Sunday School classes drew names – everyone bought a present for another person. I don’t remember if there were extra presents for visitors. Probably not – we didn’t get a lot of visitors. I wasn’t expecting much – this was not a wealthy church. But I was 8 or 9 or 10 and a present was a present. I was hoping for a simple toy, or maybe a book.
I tore into the wrapping, opened the box, and my heart dropped. There was a brown checked dress shirt and a burgundy clip-on tie.
Now, this was circa 1970. A brown checked dress shirt and a burgundy clip-on tie was some corporate retail buyer’s idea of suburban fashion for boys. But I hated it. I wanted to wear only solid colors. That was a source of frustration for my mother, who wanted me to wear stripes and checks. I tried to expand my wardrobe as a young adult, but if you look in my closet now you’ll see nothing but solid colors. It wasn’t a phase.
And a tie? It might as well have been a string of detention slips, or something worse – a tie was punishment. I tried to convince myself ties looked good when I had to wear them for work. I haven’t worn a tie since 2003 and I don’t plan on wearing one again. That wasn’t a phase either.
Even as a small child I had a good sense of diplomacy, but sometimes emotion overloads the filters. “A shirt and tie?! I’m going to kill him!” Now, I intended no real violence – this was circa 1970 and we didn’t choose our words so carefully. But I was a surprised and disappointed 8 or 10 year old and that’s what came out. I would have been happier if the box had been empty.
My mother was having none of it. “You go tell him thank you and how much you like it!” “But I don’t like it – it’s awful.” I didn’t add “and why are you telling me to lie, in church?” “His mother spent a lot of money on that – the least you can do is act grateful.” I knew it wasn’t a cheap gift, but I knew it wasn’t expensive either. And this wasn’t one of the poorer families in the church – it wasn’t a big deal for them. I remember thinking “who in their right mind gives a shirt and tie to a kid as a Christmas present?”
As I recall, I ended up saying “thank you for the shirt,” ignoring the tie and letting my voice tone communicate the words my mother wouldn’t let me say.
What is the thought that counts?
My mother was not concerned with my disappointment (though to be fair, she always went above and beyond to make sure I was happy with our family Christmas, for which I really was grateful). She was concerned that I demonstrate proper manners regardless of how I felt. She wasn’t wrong – society runs on pleasantries and civilities that aren’t always entirely true… something our politicians and political commentators would do well to remember.
She repeated the cliché “it’s the thought that counts.” Even at that age, I understood what that meant. If someone cares enough to give you a gift, that deserves your thanks, even if their choice in gifts is less than ideal.
But still, I wondered what thought I was supposed to be thankful for. That someone thought a kid might actually enjoy getting a dress shirt for Christmas? That someone thought I should be wearing ties to church? Or perhaps the thought of grabbing something at Sears or Penney’s to check a box off a Christmas list because that’s what was expected…
We have no right to expect gratitude
We’re getting ready for Thanksgiving here in the United States. It’s a wonderful holiday, one of the very few days when the retail behemoth shuts down (mostly) and most people are able to focus on family, food, and football. And though it came out of a Christian context, it is easily applicable to any religion or no religion at all. Gratitude is good.
Or rather, gratitude is good when you’re being grateful for what you’ve received.
When you demand gratitude from others it’s patronizing and contemptuous.
Not all giving is virtuous
Some philosophers argue that altruism does not exist – we do things for others because it makes us feel good about ourselves, not because of any selfless concern for their wellbeing. This strikes me as overly cynical, and in any case doing the right thing is virtuous even if our motivations are mixed.
But some giving is so corrupted by self-interest as to be decidedly unvirtuous.
Do you give to get rid of what you don’t want? One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, but after every natural disaster charities have to remind everyone “we don’t need your old clothes.” And still, people get offended because others don’t want their castoffs.
Do you give because you think you know what someone else needs better than they do? One of my uncles gave me a navy blue blazer for a college graduation present. He said “you’re going to need this.” He was right – he knew the business world far better than I did.
But do you really think you know what someone needs better than they do when you know little or nothing about their life? This is especially important in charitable giving. Whether you’re giving to charities or directly to those in need, ask! And don’t be surprised if they aren’t grateful if you give them something they can’t use and have to spend scarce resources to get rid of. If in doubt, give cash – it can easily be converted into whatever is needed.
Do you give because you want someone to have something? That’s a noble sentiment. But if your gift doesn’t make them happy, the fault is yours, not theirs.
A book was helpful to you – and you know just who needs to read it. And so you give them a copy, never considering it makes assumptions that don’t apply to them, or they’re too busy to read it, or they’re just not as interested in it as you are. You can hardly blame them if they aren’t grateful, particularly if you ask them “how’d you like that book?” every time you see them.
Condescension doesn’t deserve gratitude
I’m not 8 or 10 years old any more. If I receive a disappointing gift, I smile and say thank you, then figure out what to do with it when I get home. Sometimes that means trashing it, sometimes it means regifting, and sometimes it means using it in unexpected ways. My coworkers gave me a trendy backpack for a work anniversary. It’s too big for work and it doesn’t have the right configuration of pouches for travel. But it does very well carrying copies of The Path of Paganism to book signing events.
It’s easy for me to show gratitude for the thought behind a gift, even if that thought was presumptive or misguided. But I’m not dependent on these gifts for my wellbeing, and I’m not likely to receive gifts in a patronizing manner. Others are in different circumstances and they may respond differently.
The principle of reciprocity teaches us to return a gift for a gift. The principle of gratitude teaches us that sometimes simply saying thank you is reciprocity enough. But if a gift is something a person doesn’t need, doesn’t want, or can’t use, then they haven’t received anything of value and they may not feel obligated to reciprocate. If it’s given in a thoughtless or condescending manner, they may feel anything but gratitude.
So give freely, but give what is needed and what is wanted, and give without expectation. It is wonderful to receive gratitude, but gratitude is meaningless unless it is given freely and genuinely.