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'Tis a Gift to be Simple, It's the Thought that Counts

Ever since the dawn of homo sapiens, we have been giving gifts. It may be the leg of some recently hunted animal in the days of the cavemen or the same itchy mauve sweater with blue designs that your Aunt Miriam gives you every year of today. The question is, why do we give gifts? Is it for the intended reciprocated gift? Is it out of the kindness of our hearts? Or is it the combination of both?

In his book The Gift, Marcel Mauss says, "Gifts in theory are voluntary; you care about the person, so you give them gifts.” I would say that this is the status quo of gift-giving in American society, putting aside our consumerist tendencies. We all have people we care about in many different capacities, so we give them a gift to represent that caring and appreciation. But are gifts voluntary, or are they an obligation that we must fulfill to be a good friend, sibling, or spouse?

Mauss goes as far as to say, "We must give because we create a relationship with the person to whom we are giving.” The definition of a gift plays an important role in determining our obligation. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a gift as:

Something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation or The act right or power of giving.

By these parameters, almost everything we do and give in our relationships is a gift in some capacity. We give physical, tangible things like tea, cigars, and jewelry, and we give of ourselves by listening, talking, and spending time with whom we have relations. Peyton Conway March says this; “There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind -- are always attained by giving them to someone else.” how true it is. When we give things and ourselves to others, we give happiness. When we vanquish our pride and ego, we give freedom. When we listen with an open ear, we give peace of mind. All of these are priceless gifts that take the giving of ourselves to better a relationship. So, with this in mind, gift-giving is an obligation without which we would not have relationships.

We give gifts to people from the bottom of our hearts, but deep inside, we expect something in return. Gift-giving in a relationship is a prime example of balanced reciprocity. As we give, we expect to receive, sometimes at different times, but in the end, you have equally received what you have given to others. The gifts may not be equal in price or tangibility but may have deep, heartfelt meaning that far surpasses what any dollar amount may bring.

So, do gifts come from kindness, expectation, or both? It depends on the emphasis on kindness or the expectation, but not all gifts come with strings attached. Not all come from kindness. For your Aunt Mariam, even though she may expect something in return, she also gives you the gift because she cares about you. The emphasis is on caring. If you did not give her a gift, she would not, in most cases, ostracize you because your presence is enough of a gift. So, in the end, each situation has its answer. It becomes a question of whether you are looking to better a relationship with a person or better the gift that you may be getting from them.