In modern culture, the ethos of gift giving has come to resemble the genre of the apologia. The defendant–guarded, vigilant–is made to choose between pre-emption, exculpation, and exoneration. These are her weapons.
“But I wasn’t sure what to get you.”
A reminder of how tenuous our acquaintance, how limited our imaginations.
“I know, I know, I was so busy shopping for everyone this year that…”
A reminder of how exceptional our vanity, how miserly our spirit besides.
“I thought I would surprise you, but clearly…”
A reminder of human folly.
“No, I like it. Really I do. Thank you, darling.”
A reminder of the problem of dirty hands: petty truth-telling or painful lying, false gratitude or unwanted candor.
“Gift cards and cash are always welcome, say experts.”
A reminder of the vast extent of our agnosticism, of our obese belief in freedom of choice.
“I know you like science, so I got you a newt.”
A reminder of how fallacious our reasoning, how undiscriminating our judgments.
“Well, if you don’t like it, you can always take it back. I’ve left the receipt in the box.”
A reminder of how great our fickleness: of our failure to commit to one other, of our daily infidelities.
Let’s review: Children ask for what they shouldn’t, then receive what is needless, trivial, or harmful. Adults indulge in useless rituals and overzealous brinkmanship to assuage their doubts, curry favors, or honor long-lost pasts. This, in turn, leads to complaints that are summarily lodged followed by apologies summarily offered and reparations speedily effected. The result, naturally, is a signed treaty the point and purpose of which is to guarantee all parties a moratorium on ambient hostility for one more year.
In the sorry state, everyone feels bad. How did we become a nation of sorry gift givers, how help create a culture in which we give disposable things in a halfhearted spirit to people we barely know on the assumption that whatever we give can always be returned? Hold, sit, and dwell here for a moment… It’s as if we’d never felt love.
We live apart in countless ways.
A Coda on the Blessed State of Good Thinking
When we err, reality urges us to make amends. Will we attune ourselves to the call? And when we get things right, reality praises us for doing it justice. Will we hear its praise? Both exemplify the giving spirit of good thinking. Both bespeak the blessed state of just generosity.
Have a blessed New Year!
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, “21. Articles May Not Be Exchanged.”
Andrew Taggart, “The Starting Point of Philosophical Self-Reflection.” See, in particular, “what’s missing?”