It takes self-awareness and creativity to give presents people truly want. Why not try an intangible gift instead?
Hanny Roskamp | December 2011 Issue
There’s a giant vase in my living room. It is made out of magazines that are rolled up together like bamboo stalks. This is a lovely idea, and it has even been done well. And I remember a very good friend giving it to me years ago, with the greatest love and affection.
Still, the vase vexes me. It’s too large to tuck onto a cabinet shelf. In fact, it’s too large to put anywhere. The style and color clash with the rest of my house. And so I move it from one exotic place to another, from the top of the mini-fridge to the corner of the study. I’d have given it away years ago to someone who could love it, except… my friend still asks me regularly how I’m enjoying the vase. And I just can’t muster the courage to tell him what I really think of it, lovely as it is.
The story of my vase is the story of countless presents we give one another. Presents from long-forgotten birthdays inhabit the boxes full of useless junk that pile up in our homes. And so I think it’s time we started really thinking about the gifts we give each other.
Giving someone a really good present is a complicated affair for nearly everyone, and sometimes it’s downright rocket science. Gift shops and other stores filled with knick-knacks prey upon this complexity. You can always find something bright and colorful there, something that makes you laugh or that seems useful, such as plaid pink storage boxes or rubber duckies that glow in the dark—made in the developing world, possibly by children, almost certainly with environmentally regrettable materials.
It takes a lot of time, dedication and creativity to give a fine gift. You have to put yourself in another’s place or even possibly engage in communication. You know, by asking them what they’d really like. We usually skip that step. We buy something we really like, or something we think is “just like them.” Unfortunately, that may be something at right angles to what they think is just like them. Or we take the path of least resistance and buy that bestseller everyone must read. The way we give presents says a great deal about ourselves, I think.
When I receive a gift into which no affection or forethought has gone, it almost hurts. I feel invisible, unloved. Conversely, a present into which someone has clearly invested time thinking about me, listening to me, can touch me to the core.
But it takes courage, self-awareness and creativity to ask for something you really want. That’s an even harder task, if such a thing is possible—one at which I fail miserably. I’m also terrible at saying I don’t like a gift I’ve received. And how many people say, “Oh, I don’t want anything.” Should we honor that wish? Actually, we should. We can always take them out to dinner or lend a hand in the yard. Or just bring along a splendid bouquet of flowers, if they are the kind of person who enjoys flowers. We can give so much more than novels and neckties.
For the past two years, I’ve asked my friends and family to give me intangible gifts or ones that get used up. Things that don’t stick around. I mean, I’m happy to receive presents; I still enjoy it, even though I’m no longer a child. My loved ones listened and came up with the sweetest, most creative gifts. A certificate for the sauna, high-quality organic olive oil, a voucher for dinner out together, money I could donate to the charity of my choice. Fantastic! Best of all, it’s been contagious. More and more of my friends are saying, “Give me something intangible.” I hope we’ll infect even more people, because giving is good—and receiving is too.
Hanny Roskamp is learning to give the right gifts. The next step is learning to ask for the right ones.
Photo: Gato Azul via Flickr