Remember O. Henry's short story The Gift of the Magi ? It's a wonderful tale about the significance behind the gifts we give. Are they a trifle we give little thought to or are they a genuine sacrifice in which we take deep pleasure? Della scrimps and saves and then cuts and sells her long and beautiful hair to buy Jim a watch-fob for Christmas, while Jim sells his gold watch to buy Della combs for her beautiful long hair. They end up with expensive gifts that they each rendered useless in the immediate present. But they were, no doubt, buoyed by the love behind the sacrifices each made.
"...in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
Gifts are an important way we show love, appreciation and interest in others. When someone pays particularly careful attention to our needs and this is reflected in a gift, we feel an emotional lift that may resurface every time we look at the gift or use it. The giver also experiences pleasure in seeking out the "perfect" gift and in the often altruistic motives behind the transaction.
When we spend time picking out a present, we consider the needs and wants of someone else and journey outside the self. This alone can prove to be an existential relief and escape from too much self-absorption. There's the excitement we feel as we anticipate what the other person will think when he or she opens the wrapping and the satisfaction if we have done our job well. A thoughtful gift can cement and reinforce a relationship or connection between two people. In this way, the receiver gets when he gives.
These are all of the up-sides of giving. There are, however, many down-sides; gift-giving can become an emotional minefield. For the giver, there may be a lot of financial pressure when the gift one wants to buy or is expected to purchase is beyond one's means or the stress created at not getting the right gift. Sometimes a gift seems too generous and can create discomfort for the receiver. There may be "giver resentment" when the receiver does not express what we deem appropriate gratitude. The receiver may feel resentful or insulted when getting a gift that he or she feels is too skimpy or thoughtless. "I always wanted a sweater with one sleeve." "Thanks for the toaster. There's nothing I like better than a small appliance for our anniversary." "I really appreciate the gift card. It's so personal. Thanks for the errand" (Jim Gaffigan fans unite).
In this week's Talmud study cycle, we come across the above statement, which seems odd at first glance. Of course, a gift is not a gift until it goes from the hands of the giver and into the hands of the receiver. And yet, the Talmud alerts us to the fact that this process of transmission may not always go smoothly. We may have every intention to give a gift and then life gets in the way. The receiver may be unable - for any number of reasons - to take ownership of the gift. There may be practical obstacles like time or distance or cost. And then there may be the emotional issues just mentioned. The giver may not be able to give freely and generously - like the person who gives you something and has to remind you repeatedly how much it costs or how hard it is to part with. And the receiver, for emotional reasons, may not be able to accept a gift with a full heart because he or she comes from a family or culture where gift giving is either more or less important than it is to the giver, like the aunt who hasn't forgiven you in twenty years because you didn't send a thank you note for a wedding present - even if it was a set of his and her matching pot holders. Sometimes, in making fun of an inappropriate or unwanted gift, we diminish the thought or person behind it.
There are so many hidden wants and insecurities around gift-giving that the Talmud, in its very simple language - stresses the importance of communication around a gift transaction on both sides. Think of the most special gift you ever got and the most special gift you ever gave. Focus, for a moment, not on the item but on the context and on all the other emotional factors that we may forget about when thick in the dance of giving and receiving. How can you become a more thoughtful giver and a more generous receiver?