Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Giving of Gifts

Names have been imaginatively changed to protect the innocent.
Last night was a belated birthday celebration at Amerigo's for Martine, a member of my small women's group (hereafter referred to as Sisters). We have been celebrating birthdays with cards and presents and dinner for years now, and it has, for many of us, become the one guarantee of Proper Birthday Recognition and Appreciation.

Shall I elaborate? You know I'm gonna...!

This particular evening, everyone had really gone all out on Nifty and Thoughtful Gifts, and we were congratulating each other on said thoughtfulness... and inevitably, we began to speak of gift disappointments. As the sole Single in the group, I have no basis of comparison for the Failing of Husbands in this area, but it is always fun to hear of the train-wrecks some of my Sisters have experienced in past years. For example, Saltine told of the time her husband had bought her an appalling blood-red dress 3 sizes too big, and of the Mother's Day where, with ill-concealed delight in his Gift-Giving Genius, he gave her 3 ordinary, unrelated and boring coffee mugs in a paper bag.

Pauline's tale of decades with no birthday cakes, EVER, still trumps everyone, although we made up for that a few years back. We showed up at the agreed-upon restaurant that night with our regular gifts and cards for her... and with a birthday cake each. She about fell out of her chair, and had cakes in the freezer for months to come. I still wonder if her husband and kids ever realized the inherent rebuke from us when she took them home.

It's interesting how people react to appalling gifts. Pauline always conceals her disappointment, because of how crushed her husband becomes when she responds instinctively, while Saltine is fortunate in a husband who can take a "What on earth were you thinking?!" with humor and grace. Nadine has the opposite problem - her husband is never happy with anything she gives him, despite her best efforts and the fact that she really is trying to make thoughtful, clever choices. Celine... well, apparently she and her husband are both blessed with Nifty Giftiness, and have no impressive tales of woe.

It does seem like we rarely get what we might wish for when it comes to gifts. It's an almost impossible balance between Surprise / Effort / Ingenuity / Delight. If you tell someone exactly what to get, you lose the Surprise and Effort. If you don't tell them and they get something wrong, you lose the Ingenuity and Delight. And the burden of how to respond can make it even worse; in the case of a disappointing gift you can be honest and hurt the Giver, or lie and give the Giver a false contentment. Is the pleasure of giving gifts almost as important as receiving them? Does it matter? Are you tired of this yet?

Each December I find myself longing for the perfect gift situation (birthdays near Christmas are a constant disappointment)... one where it's something I really long for, did not expect, and didn't have to suggest to anyone. A perfect gift is more than a tangible Thing; it's also the implication that the Giver truly Knows your heart, and made a real effort to bring you joy. We all have a couple of these rare, precious situations where we were given the perfect gift, but as we get older, decades stretch between, and we falsely say to ourself and others that "Gifts don't matter that much when you get older," or "I can buy it for myself!" or "A gift certificate would be the smartest thing."

But we are disappointed. We don't want to seem childish so we pretend it makes no difference, but at our Heart we long for Real Gifts. And yet there is absolutely nothing we can do to make them happen. So we might pray for a gracious attitude, or persuade ourselves that as adults, we are beyond feeling hurt at such a small thing. But I don't think it's a small thing - selfishness and self-centeredness may be part of it, but I think this is one of those longings from the heart that never really go away in a fallen world. We have been given the best gift of all, depending on your perspective - God's Grace, Life, Good Health - but we are usually unable to prize it as we should. We want something tangible in a box with a ribbon so we know that we are loved.

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