Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gifts and Obligation

I'm reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I know it's a classic, somehow I never read it before now.

I'm struck by the nature of obligation which runs throughout the novel. I won't give specific examples, but if you've read the novel and are not amazed by the simple things that are enormous social gaffs (in early nineteenth century upper class British society) I would be shocked. Speaking to someone without being properly introduced is a good example. Or interrupting a person after they have read three pages of a sermon you're not interested in. I'm sure that the picture that Jane Austen presents of that society is realistic and accurate.

In our society, obligation is not always so cut and dry. It's often very difficult to determine what a person is "obliged" to do. Holiday gift giving is the perfect example of suchtreacherous waters. It's difficult to know what's being "polite" and what is being truly caring for those around you and yourself.

It would seem if someone gives you a gift, you are obligated to give them one (of equal makeup) in return. But I would argue that this is not necessary and not necessarily healthy. I have known many people over the years who go into debt (and some tremendous debt) to return a gift.

I spoke a little bit about this attitude in my post here.

I'm a fan of my friend north node's best gift evah bloghere. The blog authors (NN and Susania) discuss various gift giving strategies and wisdom. I certainly believe in showing the people in your life that you care about them.

Perhaps I'm just rationalizing the fact that once again this year, my family and I will receive gifts that we will not be able to return in kind. In some cases, we haven't been exchanging gifts for years now. And we have a relationship of equals, people of a similar age and financial ability.

I would make gifts, but I've found that even making gifts can also be expensive. Some craft supplies don't run cheap. And there are some people who will wear a scarf that I've knit or eat a fruitcake that I've baked and some who will not. As an example, I made some bath supplies for family members some years ago, and each time I visit my parents' home I see that the bath oil is still relatively unused in the guest bath. I know many people really appreciate homemade gifts, but some do not.

I have to trust that the people who are giving gifts realize they will not be reciprocated, and realize that they don't have to give us those gifts.

I've been told (repeatedly) that to actually say that they don't have to give us the gifts is rude.

So I'll do it here.

Thank you so much for your generosity. It is truly appreciated. We cannot return your generosity. I don't think it will be returned in the near future, unless we were to win the lottery. We may even spend some of our money on things you might not agree with, instead of on gifts for you and your family.

My attitude may sound awfully selfish. And perhaps it is selfish. I was certainly raised to believe that it was selfish to take care of myself first and others second.

Yet if I've realized anything over the years, it's that I have to start with myself first, and stop depending on what other people think. I trust that I will be able to give and support when it's really needed, and not give (and go into debt) out of a sense of obligation.


Anonymous said...

Like you, we can't possibly ever return gifts to all that give to us. There are also situations where I purchase or make gifts for others that could never return the sentiment. I have decided that by the receiver showing true delight at receiving a gift is more than enough. Hopefully my kids will show true delight when they receive gifts.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I have come to realize that sometimes I am the friend being overly generous and sometimes my friends are overly generous to me. Sometimes it is with gift and sometimes with acts of kindness or meaningful conversations. That is how life works. We help when we can in ways that we can.

laura said...

I very rarely give gifts anymore, and I encourage people not to give them to me. I don't really need any more stuff, and I would rather spend my money going to see my family than giving them stuff they don't really need. I know a lot of people get a lot of pleasure out of gift giving, and I try to take their gifts graciously.

It's hard, though.

Aerin said...

Thanks myrelish. This incident has helped me think more about people who get a lot of charity for the holidays - and how difficult sometimes it can be to be on the receiving end of that charity.

Thanks FFG - it's true - I would prefer more give and take at times. I'm looking for life to be fair, and it's just not.

Laura - I can certainly understand where you're coming from. I'm glad that some of my relatives/my husband's relatives have started donating to charities in our name. There are people who have real needs out there - I encourage people to think of those less fortunate first...if that makes sense. I try to be gracious as well - but I also want to be honest (which that is sometimes not possible, to be both gracious and honest at the same time).