I was surrounded. Freckle-faced, fidgety and uncomfortable in their frilly dresses, they stared with the focus of a predator before attack. I smiled cautiously and sighed in appropriate measure. And for a few seconds, I stared right back, after a not-so-subtle nod from my mother, and said “thank you.” And giggled. When I was a kid, I really didn’t like getting presents. Not because of some innate monk-like tendencies leading me to renounce the world and its material offerings. No, I loved getting shit! Who doesn’t love getting shit? To my still-forming kid brain it meant I was loved and special and deserving of all the wonderful goodies the modern world has to offer. I was just like any other first world brat in that way. But I also happened to be very picky and, let’s say, “specific” about what I liked. My mom might call that an understatement, but she’s not writing this. To the untrained eye (any grown-up), the line between what was cool and acceptable and what was a severe threat to my miniature self-image was a fine one—one oft misunderstood or just flat-out disregarded by others. But that’s not the problem per se. In fact, think it’s very good to know what you like.
The problem was being taught that in order to be “good,” one had to be polite, appreciative, grateful, nice. Okay, still not that big of a deal. I was a really sweet kid despite my temper tantrums when the peas touched the creamed corn. The problem was *drum roll please* that I was also taught to be honest. What? Who? How? Ah! I would say 80% of the gifts I got from other kids (ie. their parents) and relatives (sorry) were total bullshit. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t grateful. I really did appreciate the gesture and I really, really wanted to like them. But what can I say? I wasn’t into Barbies or books about babysitters. And yes, I liked socks, but they had to be the slouchy kind, and bonus points for neon. Parents don’t realize how important these distinctions are. They can mean the difference between being able to trade fruit roll-ups at lunch and having the sticky wrapper of one stuck to the side of your frizzy bangs.
Life is just less fun being not cool, so why make it harder on yourself? But I digress. I knew what I liked. I knew what I thought was “cool.” And when someone gave me a gift that didn’t fit the bill, I had a major existential crisis. Wow, you must be thinking, way to be dramatic about something that’s not that big of a deal. Just smile, say thanks, and give it to your cousin on her next birthday. And yes, that would make sense, but I just wasn’t that kind of kid. I took things very seriously. I took them to heart. I felt both hurt by people’s inability to see that I had my own unique wants and desires, and paralyzed by my inability to be honest with people and say, “Well, while I don’t like your gift, it’s okay, because I still love you as a person and very much the time and effort you put into buying it.” (By the way, my eight-year-old self speaks like an after-school-special pep talk, always.)
So now that we’ve established I was an intense kid who spent too much time worrying and not enough time getting play-dough under her fingernails, I want to switch gears a little bit. I was contemplating the act of giving the other day as I unwrapped a gift that ignited a similar slightly minor ethical dilemma. Without going into details, it was simply a product I wouldn’t buy for ethical reasons. But as I thought more about the nature of giving, I realized that receiving a gift is SO not about me at all. Giving is about the “giving” (duh). I had had it all backwards. As kids (and grown-ups) often do, I thought it was all about me, and like some sort of circus monkey, I was meant to perform the appropriate “gift-getting” ritual so as to please my humble subjects. But the reality is they already got their show. They got it through the whole process of thinking about the gift, buying or making the gift, imagining how great it is and how the person will love it. At the end of the day, if the person happens to love it, it’s just icing on the cake. The actual handing over of the gift is the final putt two inches from the hole; the joy is playing the game.