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Why Do We Give Gifts?

Originally written November 28, 2021

A desire to connect lies at the heart of our gift-giving. How lovely is that?

The Time of Coronavirus has caused me to ask a lot of questions, primary among them: what the heck are we doing and why??

The pandemic has disrupted and altered many of our holiday celebrations, which provides an opportunity to get curious about the ways in which we celebrate and the deep "whys" that drive them.

In my more cynical moments of the holiday season, I feel like a puppet of the myriad commercial interests that treat me as a consumer rather than a souled citizen. But cynicism is a privilege and not one that makes me feel particularly good, so what happens when I let it go?

I am left to consider the very nature of gift-giving and what is at its heart that makes it an enduring tradition spanning cultures and even species.

So, why do we give gifts?

  • To show that I value you and our relationship.

It's nice to feel liked, isn't it? A gift can be a token of acknowledgment of a meaningful relationship. If we look at gifting practices in other animals, like dogs and cats, we see an acknowledgement that our survival is intertwined - an offering of dead animal du jour(our animal friends don't always nail it when it comes to anticipating our preferences) says "you matter to me and I want to show you appreciation because I want to matter to you." Beyond fostering safety and security, it feels good to please and delight others. We receive satisfaction from the giving itself and can even share in another's joy through compersion.

  • To communicate that I see you.

We long to be seen, known, and loved - because to be truly loved, we must be known and to be known we must be seen. A gift can be deeply meaningful when it conveys that I see what you like - what you value; what beauty, fun, pleasure, comfort, play, etc. are to you - and I want you to have what you like.

  • So that you can better know me.

Gifts often reflect the giver more accurately than the receiver. We cannot perceive anything outside of our own consciousness. Even the most empathetic among us is still internally recreating the imaginedexperience of another person using their OWN consciousness. We aren't mind-readers, so let's let ourselves off the hook if sometimes we gift according to what we would like to receive or have perceived about us.

Whether resources are scarce or abundant, homemade gifts can communicate that I want to give you my time, energy, and creativity.

  • To share the bounty.

Homo sapiens have survived thanks to our social nature and sharing is a highly social behavior that recognizes our interdependence. When I feel balanced and resourced, the more I want to give because I want those around me to feel good and resourced as well. Often the most valuable gifts we receive are not monetary or tangible, but are offered through sharing our time, presence, and written or spoken sentiments.

  • To express reverence and gratitude for the surprising gift of life.

For all we know, one day we just showed up here, born into the world - perhaps of no choice or virtue of our own - inherited a body to inhabit, a life to live, and a generous, beautiful planet to live it on. Is there any greater grace than this spontaneous cosmic boon? Perhaps the greatest gift is that we get to enjoy it not alone, but together.

At its core, gift-giving expresses a desire for closeness through an offering of care and during the times when we must hold each other from a distance, giving a gift closes that gap.

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