With raiment and arms shall friends gladden each other,
so has one proved oneself;
for friends last longest, if fate be fair
who give and give again.
I used to be the kind of jerk who scoffed – I mean scoffed – at the giving of tiny, meaningless gifts. “Greeting cards,” I would say in my self-importance, “are the easy way out of saying something meaningful.” In those days, I thought Tim Allen and Jeff Foxworthy were the height of poignant, meaningful comedy. I would fall into line – “Men don’t give little gifts, we make things. Useful things. We have no sentiments. grunt grunt grunt.”
I would mechanically repeat the age-old mantra of gift reception – “it’s the thought that counts” – while glossing over the real meaning behind that phrase. Who really means that, honestly? Isn’t this just socially acceptable code for “You have terrible taste and I will never use the pile of shit you have just given to me, but it would take a modicum of effort to deal with your butthurt if I told you that – so instead, I’m going to coddle your ego in the manner deemed acceptable by society.” And we would execute these dance steps – token useless gifts accepted with token useless appreciation – with all the joy with which one mows the lawn or plunges the toilet.
I dunno, maybe I’m projecting here, but it always sounded so hollow to me. Too much formality and ritual and not enough feeling and thought and utility in gift-giving. Not for me, nope. I will not participate in such contrived rituals and meaningless corporate glorification. No Hallmark, you will not be my Valentine! Look at how different and edgy I’m being by rejecting your retail-dictated norms!
When we lost my father all those years ago (9 this December), I distinctly remember the lesson I learned: ham is the proper gift to give to someone who is mourning. Over the course of a week, we received no fewer than 8 hams – whole hams, half hams, bone-in, semi-boneless, boneless, spiral-sliced, hickory smoked, brown-sugar glazed – in an endless stream of porcine condolences.
In fact, I distinctly remember a dear friend showing up with a foil-covered pan, looking mournful and pained. He said, “I had no idea what to do, so I made a ham.” It was beautiful, really – the perfect summary of human sentiment. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, so fuck it – have some pig. I told him to add it to the pile.
But you know what? Fuck me. The thing I missed in that entire time is that gift-giving is not about the recepient – not entirely, at least. When someone gives a gift to you, they’re looking for one in return – gracious acceptance.
If I give you a gift, it’s me saying, “I care about you enough to extend this part of myself. I have taken some of the focus off of my own very busy life and gone out of my way – even if it’s only slightly – for you. Please accept this gift, thereby acknowledging that my effort was meaningful and useful. I’ve chosen to invest myself in you, because I believe you will pay off.”
Sometimes, we don’t want to accept the gift. We have no use for it, or we feel put upon to respond in kind. I have plenty of experience with someone who really really really wants to help and is just so insistent about it that I feel like rejecting their gifts. But really, I don’t think we are so suffused with goodwill in the world that any of us can afford to reject it as a matter of practice; it’s a far better thing to accept the gift as a default, and deal with the rejections as they arise.
To accept a gift with grace means that you are helping that person to feel useful and needed, deepening the social bonds that keep us civil – investing their social currency wisely. The gift itself is virtually meaningless – rather, the exchange of the gift creates a lasting resevoir of social goodwill that can be tapped later. It’s one way in which we build social wealth to later turn into social worth, and it’s now your job to steward that investment and guarantee a return.
Or, in other words – yes, it really is the thought that counts. The thought is all that matters. The form the gift takes will depend entirely on the personality of the giver – some like to feed, some like trinkets, some like cards, some like words, and some like to simply be there if you need them. The recepient factors into it, in that they are the catalyst for the action – but that’s it. When you’re being given a gift, someone is asking you to help them out. You should strive to be so generous in your acceptance.
In our day-to-day lives, anything we do can be a moment of gift-giving. A well-time word, a hand when it’s needed (or not), a good fight – as long as it is done with the intention of giving a gift and accepted graciously, any exchange has value. Simply being around when someone wants you can have a tremendous effect.
We have precious little time in our lives; if we’re lucky, we’ll have ~80 years on this rock, hurtling through space at unbelievable speeds until our reactionary sacks of biochemistry give out and we return to the organic confluence that spawned us. Use that time wisely and give generously.
The SCA has taught me a lot about gift-giving, a thing I never used to value. I’ve learned to write poems and make rings, to pour drafts and listen as someone ranted about a thing that matters to them. To give gifts and to accept them in kind, making sure to invest the interest on that goodwill in others. I recently received a very generous gift – an award of high merit – that was given to me by people who want me to stick around, and I’m still figuring out how to respond to it. Obviously, my friends have chosen to invest in me – so they must see a potential for return. If I am to honor them, it’s my duty to ensure that their investment is not wasted.
I’m not perfect about it – not by any means – but it’s a thing that I am always pursuing. Learning how to give and how to accept – it’s an imperfect process, but the result is worthwhile.
Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.