Presence not Presents

My war on gift-giving earns just about as much criticism as it does confusion, so I think it makes sense to lay the argument out here. To start: there is a strong economic case against gift giving. It’s based on things like gift-givers routinely paying more for their present than the receiver values it at, that a large percentage of gift cards–the latest way out of the gift giving puzzle–go unredeemed and are inherently inefficient even when they are, that we (in the rich world) frequently want for nothing and so are given things we definitionally do not want, and the fact that people get little enjoyment or economic benefit out of either giving or recieving gifts and yet spend a great deal of time and money doing it. All those arguments are valid, rational, and widely greeted with a “yeah, well, but economics sucks.” So I’ll set that whole area aside, if you’re interested I’d recommend the reasonably short, accessible, and available Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

To start, I think it’s worth considering the practical symbolism of gift-giving. Like the pre-Medieval tribute, gift-giving is essentially an economic way by which we demonstrate if not good will, then at least a promise not to harm. That description is obviously somewhat inflammatory, but I find it undeniable that there’s a thread of commonality between this archaic demonstration of commitment and this rarely-questioned tradition we still practice today.

Practically speaking, the positive case for gift giving is usually that we’re showing our care for each other by buying the other things they certainly want but wouldn’t indulge so much as to purchase. Setting aside the reality that this is rarely how gift-exchanges shake out, even this idealization seems odd. It posits that the strongest needs that we can satisfy for each other are urges for physical objects that others must help us to realize. Again, accepting that to be true is, to my mind, rather depressing.

We humans have many needs. We need things like shelter, food, water, sanitation, and comfort. We also have deep and seldom-explored psychological needs for belonging, purpose, love, success, acceptance, etc. Gifts almost never satisfy the first set of needs–we’re buying chocolates for each other not because we think the other hungry, but because we figure at least they can eat it–and rarely offer more than a momentary relief from our psychological longings.

When we spend time on other people with the goal of securing a secret physical object to later hand them, we’re excluding them from our time as though the physical object we find will somehow make that time directed toward them (yet without them) worthwhile. Maybe we think that we’re not excluding them from our time, but rather borrowing time from elsewhere to devote to gift giving. Again, even if that were true, it would be a strange and irrationally indirect way to show we care.

There are few greater gifts we can give to one another than our genuine and complete presence with them. This is not an easy gift to give–we have minds built for avoiding being hunted down by predators, not for focused caring attention for another person–but it is the gift that best fulfills our so-frequently-missed psychological needs. Giving someone your genuine presence almost inherently gives them a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance. Those things give them easier access to a sense of purpose and success. Even if you’re not good at demonstrating presence to others, there’s no way for you to get better than spending your time doing it intentionally with a willingness to improve.

It’s time, not money (even proxied through physical goods), that we need to give each other. No gift means as much as a few hours spent genuinely encountering each other with acceptance and care. We can’t give presence without taking the time out of our lives to give to others; the same can not be said for physical presents. Money is unevenly distributed and so a problematic medium through which to demonstrate our caring. But there is nothing more even than time. The fifteen minutes we promise to regularly spend really present with each other represents an equal loss and possibility of gain for both of us, and that seems like the best possible kind of gift-exchange to me.