There is a lot of tension wrapped up in the concept and act of giving a gift. In this season our senses are on high alert for the best deal, the coolest new gadget, or something that will get us that “wow” expression when the paper and ribbons are torn away. We nearly burst blood vessels trying to think of the perfect gift for Uncle Fred.
Some of the tensions that I personally feel deal with the desire for minimalism, but also the desire to bless abundantly. I am a gift-giver at my core. I also have a strong conviction that quality is to be desired over quanitity, and longevity and usefulness of the gift is preferable to the “wow factor.” Of course, if you can have both, all the better! And then there’s the ever-present money/lack-of-money factor that we all wrestle with regardless of the size of your paycheck.
My husband and I were having a conversation about these things when we realized that there’s another tension at play. Perhaps we need to talk more about human needs.
There are ones that are constant, circular, like the need to eat, sleep, and be kept at a fairly constant temperature. These are the kinds of needs that never go away, but that you can temporarily satisfy by gifting a bottle of wine, slippers, a cozy blanket, or a tin of homemade fudge. But if these were the only gifts we ever gave, we would be missing out on the extras that contribute to who we are as individuals and play into our unique stories. These are the linear needs. What would Beethoven have done without a Piano? A superfluous and luxurious piece of furniture to many, but to Beethoven—an essential part of his story.
Have you ever received a gift that had no practical purpose, but sparked something deep within you, or contributed significantly to your vocation? Perhaps it did have a practical purpose, but was more than that, too. I tend to be rather utilitarian, so most of my most cherished objects are also useful. My sweater Cody brought home for me from Ireland 7 1/2 years ago, and a hand towel I snagged from a “free” box at a consignment sale in Germany, are two of my most cherished possessions. I didn’t know at the time that they would be a significant part of my story, but they are. They represent the things and people that I love. They keep me warm and my hands dry. They are beautiful to look at and represent adventure, and a life I lived and loved.
What else is significant to us, maybe not on an individual basis, but on a community scale? A table seems a good example. It not only serves the practical purpose of giving us a place to hold a bowl of soup, but it adds structure and provides a space for conversation, for things shared, for a gathering. Around a table we build community and deepen friendships. Around a table we teach our children and thank our God. We could all live without a table, but a lot of deeply good and nourishing things would be lost, or at the very least not so accessible.
For the last year and a half we have experienced a similar thing to not having a table. It’s a thing unheard of in middle class America; we have lived without a couch. It has been less than ideal on many levels, but this doing without has helped me see why it’s a very good thing to have a sofa. For a long while, the absence of this seemingly essential piece of furniture was nothing more than a shot to my pride. I’ve gotten over that now and have been able to see the goodness, not just the superficial social factors, of a couch. It serves a very practical purpose of bringing people together. Unlike chairs, a couch invites people into closeness. Picture a family as they snuggle up to read a book. Perhaps a kid perches on the back of the sofa to get a closer look, unintentionally sticking his feet in his mama’s face while another child jabs her in the ribs. That smart mama edges a little out of the line of fire, and the story begins. A couch, a table, perhaps a large rug, are where the drama of our lives and our families and our communities play out.
And so I’m wondering, how can we contribute to the life and breath of our families and our communities through our gift giving? What can we contribute that has the potential to spark creativity, or enable someone to learn a new skill set? How can our gifts contribute to the love and warmth of a home? How can a gift for a child help him to play better with his siblings or friends? How can we feed bodies and souls?
These are questions I’m asking. What ones are on your heart and mind?