What is the art of giving?

Few of us would want to admit that when we give a gift or give of ourselves, that it is not always done “freely”. We like to think of ourselves as generous and selfless. Yet, we need to take another look. How often do we give with hidden expectations of a particular response and how easy is it really to give freely with no strings attached? With Christmas season soon upon us, this is a good time to take a look at the art of giving.

Some of us invest a great deal of time in choosing gifts for people. We genuinely want the receiver to like what we have chosen for them. Problems come into play, however, when the desire for the other person to be pleased and the concern about making a mistake are so strong that we end up agonizing too much over our choice of gifts. This can make gift giving more onerous than joyful. It would be so much more pleasurable if we could let go of the worry and go with our initial instinct instead of analyzing and second guessing ourselves. After all, choosing a gift should be playful and fun, not painful and serious. We will not always be accurate in our choices. It is the intention and thoughtfulness that deserves the focus.

The fact is that it is very rare to give and not hope for a certain reaction or expect something in return whether we are conscious of our own hidden expectations or not. I had a close friend many years ago who used to buy me, not expensive, but very thoughtful gifts at Christmas time. When she gave me a gift, she would always preface it by saying: “I thought you might like this but if you find that it is not for you, feel free to pass it on to somebody else who you think might like it”. The first time she said this to me, I found it more than bizarre! Who says this to somebody when they give them a gift? Nobody had ever said such a thing to me before. Yet, I knew she meant what she said in all sincerity and I realized that I found the sentiment rather liberating. After all, I could like the gift or not; I could keep it or not or even re-gift it if I so chose, without having to feel guilty! How many of us have experienced being given something without any investment whatsoever in our response? This friend taught me a powerful lesson: When you buy something or do something for someone, do it because of the joy of it, not because of the reaction you might get. It was great advice but as I soon discovered, it was not easy to put it into practice.

I began to become more and more vigilant to my giving, both as regards gift giving and doing things for others. I had always enjoyed giving gifts and also being able to help out others. I started to pay closer attention. Was I giving for the right reasons? Was I worrying too much about whether the other person would be pleased or not? How many times was I giving out of a sense of obligation? Was I giving in order to be liked and appreciated? Did I secretly expect something in return? Sometimes, my expectations were not evident until after-the-fact when a friend let me down or failed to come through in some way. I would think that I was giving selflessly and later down the road, I would hear a voice in my head saying: “After all that I have done for her!” While at one time, I might have felt quite righteous saying this, I now felt somewhat embarrassed as I recognized in retrospect the strings that must have been attached to my giving.

I became more conscious of the motives and expectations behind my giving. I began to wonder whether sometimes, a present or the lavishness of a gift was my way of trying to compensate for not feeling quite good enough or for not spending the time and energy I could have devoted to the relationship. I became determined to restrain the impulse to give when I had any inclination whatsoever that my intention was not what I would have hoped. I tried to think first rather than just going on automatic pilot. This awareness led to changes in my giving practices. The changes have all been good and the learning never ceases…

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