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What is Gift Giving

Christmas-time causes me to think about the question, “What is gift giving really about?” I wonder if it is just commercialization, a capitalistic enterprise we Americans enter into at Christmas, birthdays, and other celebrations, devoid of meaning? Is it a social obligation we believe we have to fulfill, perhaps even resented? Or is there something deeper in the rituals?

A gift usually is something we purchase – a present, flowers, etc. It can also be any meaningful expression of “I’m thinking about you” in different forms such as a quote, phone call or perhaps even a website link – some thought-filled, meaningful form of reaching out to another. A gift in its various forms of ‘thinking about’ another really is an invitation to relationship, an opportunity to enter into a place where I leave my self-absorbed world for a few moments to enter yours.

I ponder this question because I am aware of a strange, puzzling, lonely feeling rising up inside when large amounts of time goes by and I don’t have contact with someone I am close to. Is it some needy part of myself, my codependency? It’s not that I need another gift or card. It makes sense only from the perspective of relationship and our human longing and need to see and be seen by others, our thinking about another or someone thinking about me. I remember a phone call when a friend called simply saying, “I was thinking about you and just wanted to call and tell you”. Wow! A call to simply say, “I was thinking about you”!

There’s a powerful scene in the Shadowlands movie (Richard Attenborough production), that expresses this beautifully. C. S. Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, and great thinker meets Joy, an American atheist who comes to England wanting to meet Lewis after reading his literature. Many months later he sees Joy in the audience of one of his lectures. He approaches her to say hello and after an exchange of pleasantries, he hesitates a few moments, thinking deeply, and says, “Joy, I’ve been thinking about you – yes, I’ve been thinking about you”. At this pregnant moment, Lewis realizes something beyond thinking. “Thinking about” actually connects to some mysterious deeper place within ourselves, a protected, vulnerable part that we must choose to open up to another or keep protected and safe. Dare we call it love?

Our earthly journey requires boundaries, a protection of this fragile, innermost part of self, apart easily wounded by others. This protected territory is purposeful. Some authors like Richard Rohr or Frederick Buechner refer to this as our true self or our hidden self. This protected part of self must choose to open up to another or even to God our innermost thoughts and feelings. Even though God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings, when we choose to openly reveal them, we join in relationship. While we walk this earth in human form, we are not absorbed into or lose identity in God or one another, nor do we merge into another where we lose the uniqueness of our self. God remains distinctly God and I remain distinctly me. By choice, we enter into a mystical, open, vulnerable dance of relationship. God created us in His image, each of us unique, one of a kind with attributes of Himself. But, we are not God! A popular movie star who was seen running along the beach with arms raised declaring “I am God – I am God” is a blurring of truth, psychology, and Christian theology. It is confusion about what it means to be created in God-likeness. Though we are made in His image He did not give us His Godhead. God draws us into relationship, not forced or coerced, but persistent. God needs only one thing: our choosing!

A gift of thinking about others in various forms, therefore, is a way to participate in relationships. Actions taken to think about another declares to them, “You are important and I see you”. It is an invitation to experience love and acceptance in all its vulnerability. Humans long to be seen, heard and cared about. We need a witness to our lives; we need to witness others’ lives as well. Relationships are not a one-way street, a self-absorbed narcissistic journey of self, but a choice to join together in openness.

We are needy in the sense that we need relationships, real, intimate, meaningful ones of openness, honesty, and vulnerability. We need freedom in relationships not freedom from them; therein lies love. Yet, paradoxically, we need to protect ourselves, cautious when opening up the delicate, sensitive parts of our hidden self to others where we are known, possibly judged, rejected, criticized or made fun of. We hide parts of ourselves avoiding relationships because we’ve been hurt.   We don’t trust others to hold gently and lovingly what we share.

A gift carries an invitation to relationship and an opportunity to leave self for a time and enter a mysterious, vulnerable interaction. To say, “I’ve been thinking about you – yes, I’ve been thinking about you” is a powerful and important message conveying “I see you”, thereby opening our inner fragile self to the freedom and vulnerability of being known.