Gift-getting expectations should not be gift-giving obligations.
Most of my life I’ve been criticized as a bad gift giver.
I’ve never understood the expectation of a preordained gifting day as a sign of fidelity, thoughtfulness, warmth or love. The experience feels manufactured. I lack the gene allowing me to feign joy in the moment. Therefore, long ago I decided gift-getting expectations of others are not my gift-giving obligations.
Like many Americans growing up in the age of middle class Baby Boomer embraced consumerism, there was never a shortage of gifts in my house. The oft-repeated cliché of, “I want my kids to have more than I had,” was the mantra. Love was demonstrated via a balanced equation: love = (the number of gifts) x (the cost of the gifts).
Feigned appreciation was the expected reaction. Process trumped passion.
Detaching from the mythology of my family of origin, I’ve never had an emotional connection to getting or giving gifts. Even at a young age I felt no affinity to a special event or moment. It was simply “time” for the gifts. An Atari, a stuffed green Yertle the Turtle and a BigTrack are the few gifts of the thousands I received over a lifetime I fondly remember. I cannot fathom the tens of thousands of dollars wasted on the “hottest” gifts eventually destined for a landfill, a thrift store or eBay.
As a curmudgeon-in-training, I’ve taken an abstinence approach to the season of giving,birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and Sweetest Day. It is one of my many anti-social, non-conforming and less-than-charming approaches to modern life. Even when I declare to loving and caring friends and family members I shall not be buying a gift for this or that event they are still dismayed when no gift presents itself at the socially anointed moment. They do not always respond well to one of my few personally hard and fast rules.
When I do give a gift it is because I’m thinking of him or her and not because I feel an obligation to give him or her a gift. Bringing home flowers I stumbled upon at the winter market simply because I know how much a loved one missed the colors of spring carries more emotional and spiritual meaning than the size of the diamonds in the wedding band.
If I find a book of Victorian poetry, bound in leather and smelling musty, and there is a poem speaking of passion and truth or a story simply makes me laugh, I might think, “She would love this.”
Clearly, a gift worth giving.
If I give a gift the motive will be clear: it reminds me of a specific person or of something they might enjoy. I care not for the mass-produced, not-made in the U.S.A., engineered-to-fail consumerism of the modern American box retailer.
Brand me a communist or a misanthrope or even a communist misanthrope.
I’ve had friends and a wife or two, send me a list of items they want for a special event or provided a link to their self-serving and grandiose wedding and baby shower registries. I bristle at this hand selecting of a thoughtful gift. I wish I could say this softly: your expectations are not my obligations. The greater your expectations the less my inclination to oblige. If you want it, buy it; I don’t work for Amazon.
At a gathering of friends, as I regaled them with my gift not-giving experiences, someone added, “Sean, it doesn’t seem like you are a bad gift giver. It seems like others are more likely bad gift getters.”
If you are the type of woman that enjoys flashing her ring off to impress girlfriends and associates, I am not the right man for you. I am seeking a partner to embrace the joy in wearing my paternal grandmother’s wedding bands. A woman finding power in the telling of the story. If you understand me, you understand the token significant of this touchstone to my heritage. You value the message of the meaning and intent. You see it as the symbol it is intended to be.
I’ve asked two women in my life to wear those rings and two times I discovered my romanticism was no match for their expectations.
In both cases, after the honeymoon period, it wasn’t enough. The history, significance and meaning were less important to them than the appearance of the rings to friends, family and associates.
Setting aside the handcrafted jewelry at art shows, I’ve never bought jewelry. I certainly have never purchased from a mall jeweler. The idea can be a bit disconcerting because of all the variables. My ignorance about jewelry is a recipe for financial fraud. I couldn’t tell you the difference between eighteen carat gold and gold plating.
For social justice reasons I don’t see myself buying diamonds. Also, I don’t understand the appeal of diamonds as they seem more likely status symbols than love symbols. I can learn all of the details but, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t care. I would only use the knowledge to buy a status symbol I find—for my value system—to be for the vain.
Not that I’m judging. Okay, I’m judging a little.
Lastly, the definition of “reputable” is usually dependent on the amount of advertising a jeweler can afford on television. Even now, listening to the radio or watching TV, every jeweler’s commercial seems to be written by the same advertising agency. The script for a jeweler’s commercial in the Twin Cities is identical to the commercial for one in Columbus, Ohio.
However, wanting to be a good husband and end a year of arguments and fights over my grandmother’s rings, I went to a jeweler in my hometown with a specific mission: buy a large gold Claddagh ring.
If she wasn’t going to wear my family rings I was going to at least give her a ring she wanted to wear. As such, I went into the store, feeling uneasy. I wasn’t sure if I had enough money. I wasn’t sure if I was buying the right ring. I wasn’t sure if I was buying what she really wanted.
In a nutshell, I was unsure.
I did the best I could with what I knew and took the ring home.
A bit nervous. Excited she might be excited. Happy to have found something in my budget.
And all the while still unsure.
I could tell you how this transformed my skepticism into a new found appreciation for the importance of gifts and jewelry. How, through this experience, I saw my own stubborn refusal to conform to social norms melt away and I saw the error of my ways. How my heart grew three sizes and now every opportunity to “gift” is met with joyous merriment.
I could also tell you that Santa is real.
I would be lying. There is no happy ending.
Less than 24 hours later, and another sleepless night on the couch, I was back in the jeweler’s store, tail tucked between my legs liked a whipped dog, telling the jeweler, the beautiful associates and another customer, I was an idiot and hearing how I don’t listen. I bought a man’s ring instead of a womens ring. I bought the wrong size.
Public shaming your significant other is not a recipe for wedded bliss. Long-term resentment certainly doesn’t help either.
We left the ring with the jeweler and it was years before I saw my dignity—or balls—again. Neither of us wore wedding bands afterwards. As I told her at the time, “If you want a ring go buy one.”
I’m sure I make it out worse than it was. Memory is a tricky thing. Shame and humiliation is the saltpeter of a relationship. No amount of emotional Viagra is going to fix that damage.
What I learned from the experience is to stick to my values. I’m not going to buy a gift out of obligation. I’m not going to feign interest in manufactured holidays or someone elses social expectations.
I am who I am and if someone labels me Scrooge, Grinch or Bad Santa so be it. It is too late in my life to spend it trying to impress people with an expected and scripted gift.
Today I tell people to remember when I am moved to give them a book of Victorian poetry in July, a spring bouquet in January, a bottle of bubble bath to take a hot bath or a new screwdriver set that I gave it to them because I was thinking of them and not because I’m trying to buy attention, impress them with my grandiosity or out of a misplaced obligation.
I did it because I think enough of the relationship to be spiritually and emotionally connected in a way that when I was out in the world I saw or experienced something unique causing me to think of them in an unexpected, unguarded and unscripted way.
Therein is the real gift.