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there is no such thing as a free gift

Image from wpcg.ca
It somehow seems apropos that I am doing research on the idea of gift during the Christmas season. When I first began to write this chapter of my dissertation, I was pretty sure where I would go with it. I was headed for the idea of the perfect, pure gift. A gift given without self-interest, without obligation. A gift which did not shy away from sacrifice and sought to bring the other person delight. Yes, that was the kind of selfless gift I was going to write about, the kind of gift motivated solely by concern for the other with no thought for oneself.

Earlier this year I read The Gift (1925) by sociologist, Marcel Mauss, his influential work dealing with gift-giving practices in primitive societies. Mauss concluded that gift-giving practices in archaic tribes located in Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest were actually part of a whole system which involved economic transactions, wealth dispersion, political power, familial ties, and honour codes. In short, Mauss was writing about obligatory, self-interested gifts. Which were not gifts at all, I thought. I was going to rip his idea of a gift economy to shreds, and leave it in the dust with my pure words about the perfect, free gift which makes no demands of the recipient.

But when I read him again this week, I realised that I was wrong. What Mauss observes in certain primitive societies is the important role which gift-giving plays in building and maintaining relationships. Sure, the practices are imperfect, tainted by abuses of power-hungry chiefs and tribal rivalries. Sure, certain gifts are associated with magic powers and occult practices. But, doggone it, Mauss is onto something important.

The Maoris believed that an object carried the hau or spirit of the person it belonged to. Therefore, when someone gave a gift to another person, they were actually giving a part of themselves. Now, this idea soon distorted into the donor having some sort of power over the recipient, and due to the inclination of the hau to return to its original owner, things got a bit poltergeisty, but let's not get distracted by that. At the heart of the Maori idea of gift is this: a good gift is not selfless; it contains the self. And this is what the concept of ideal gift, with its hoity-toity disassociation from the self and its self-righteous refusal of reciprocity is lacking: relationship.

A good gift should certainly be appropriate and uniquely chosen for the recipient, but this criteria does not exist in a vacuum. A good gift means that I put myself out there along with the gift. A good gift is unique not only because it is specially selected for the recipient but also because a unique person gives it. It is important to note that a gift, like an invitation, can be refused but it cannot be un-given. Therefore, giving a gift puts a person in some kind of relationship with another. And if we are in relationship, what one person does affects the other. We have become inter-connected. I agree with Mauss that there is no such thing as a free gift; there is cost involved for the giver and there is responsibility placed on the recipient to treat that sacrifice with respect. Good gifts are better than free; they are the building blocks of relationships.

People give gifts which they believe will please the other person. This is what we normally classify as a good gift. But what about people who give gifts which reflect their own personality and tastes? Is this selfish? I don't believe it is. Let me suggest that it is often an expression of their desire to connect with another person by giving something of themselves. We readily recognise this in children. The scribbly drawing of a purple dog is valued not because of its aesthetic quality, monetary value, or intuitive knowledge of the recipient, but because the child gives something of himself. It is a gift which is intimately connected with its giver. Because of this simple offering of the self, we feel connected to the child and proudly display the imperfect artwork. We would never think to belittle a gift such as this because, in truth, this type of gift is more generous and vulnerable than many sophisticated, expensive, luxury items which adults bestow on each other.

Thanks to Mauss, I am asking myself some different questions this gift-giving season. Questions like, "How can I generously receive the people who give me gifts, the people who give me a part of themselves, no matter what the gift is?" And "How can I give gifts which emphasize connection over correctness?" And this one, too: "How can I recover the generous, simple attitude of a child who gives an imperfect gift but gives it perfectly?"

In thinking about this familiar Bible verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave (made a gift of) his only Son..." (John 3:16) I am struck by the goodness of this gift, not because it was exactly what the sad and sorry world needed, but because God gave himself. And in doing so, God expressed a desire to connect with us, to nurture a tenuous relationship and see it flourish, and to build a community of child-like givers and receivers.

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