Beyond receiving

Gifts, Horses and Mouths… from Northword Magazine Feb 2008


Beyond receiving

By: Russell Bowers

Every time the calender flips over another day, I realize that I’m one day closer to being on the Earth for forty years.
I hope it’s not curmudgeonliness setting in…but the most recent wave of gift-giving—through Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays and (for some of us) Valentines—has left me a bit cool on the notion of “it is better to give than receive.”
And it’s not even premature miserliness. I love to give gifts to other people. I look for that squeal or other suitable utterance of glee when I see the package get opened. But you know, I have to admit: it doesn’t always live up to my expectations.
Do you remember seeing the ad that one of the big box stores runs at holiday time? A couple is shopping for high-end electronics, and they ask a clerk where they can find the “OH MY GOD!!—How did you know?!” gifts.

I started to wonder: when was the last time I got excited over a gift? For that matter, when was the last time someone got that excited over something I gave?

As a general tenet, throughout the year, we’re told that it’s better to give than to receive. (Mind you, it’s often merchants themselves who tell us this sort of thing, hoping to receive our money in exchange for something we’ll then give to someone else.) Either way you cut it, we’re down a few bucks on the exchange for a product we won’t own, all in an attempt to elicit an emotion or reaction that will make the money spent “so worth it.”

Now, obviously I’m not talking about charitable donations, or picking up some extra toys for needy children when the occasion calls for it. A gift in any form does, at its essence, express a fundamental thought that should count above everything else: “I care enough to get this for you.”

I suppose what I’m talking about is the gift that makes us wonder if the person who gave it to us really has any idea who we are at all.

I have a friend who insists on getting me a gift for my birthday, and every year he gets me an item along this theme: it’s something I already own.

If I happen to mention a book or CD I’m enjoying to him, you can bet that, come birthday time, I’ll get that CD or book. Oh well—it makes my re-gifting options that much easier.

For years as a child I endured presents from a particular aunt who was convinced that mustard yellow was my favourite colour, and that I simply must have another sweater in that colour, and it simply must be two sizes too small. It reminds me of that adage which states that people don’t often get you what you’d like…they tend to get you things they think you should like. (A variant on this is that they get you things they’d like to have themselves.)

I have to say, the most excited I get these days is when I’ve found something I really want and wasn’t expecting to find, and I just buy it for myself. I know that’s self-indulgent (and other less generous terms), but I’m at a point where I don’t want people to bother with my birthday or Christmas or whatever because, chances are, I won’t need whatever it is they are going to give me. As it is, people tell me I’m a hard person to shop for; they don’t know what to get because chances are I already have the things I’m interested in.

There are exceptions. I mentioned to a loved one that I didn’t own a camera, and just before a recent trip I took, they gave one to me as a present.

And, in a pinch, a gift certificate is great—even if it does express a certain level of bankruptcy in the imagination department. But hey!…if donations in lieu of flowers are good enough at a funeral…

I try to listen carefully to what people I care about are into. I try to find those things they’d like but probably wouldn’t get for themselves for one reason or another.

Maybe that’s what I’m really on about here. Listen to the people you care about; they will probably tell you what they want. If we focus on that, and on buying things for just those people, then the rampaging consumerism we all lament at any time of the year may just subside.

And maybe then we’ll all get what we want.