What's lost when we give impersonal gifts, Whether it's to Heifer International or Amazon gift card?


It caught my eye and made sense, at first.  The article “Forget the scarf. These gifts change lives” by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (November 30)  has Kristof's annual recommendations of worthy organizations where the money usually spent on a perfunctory gift could actually support a sustainable lifestyle for those in less privileged situations. 


Then I got thinking. There seems to be the underlying cynical view of the gifts we give. Though there may be some justification for that view and much as I agree with him that meaningless gifts, proforma gestures, are much better replaced by giving to important causes (especially if you know the organization is close to someone’s heart), the question is more nuanced and alive for me.


What is the potential loss when we give a card that says “A contribution was made to...in your name?” What about the person-to-person ritual of gift giving? What about the scarf that is truly one that the giver chose with attention to color, material, and source with the recipient in mind? That care is at the root of the meaning of the season. Showing love, the shared joy and surprise in opening gifts.


Though it is obviously worthwhile to make a contribution to the organizations Kristof cites, my sense is that it could become just as automatic as a gift card for Amazon - perhaps more so, because of the noble cause. We can be automatic, not take the time to consider the interests of the receiver and still come away with an altruistic glow.


After all, considering the person, noticing what they need or would enjoy, is at the heart of gift-giving.


When feasible financially, consider making a gift to the causes Kristof mentions without others’ knowledge and still taking the time and thoughtfulness to give gifts of time, experience and, yes, material things, meaningfully.


When the budget can’t sustain that, buying in line with values ours and those of  our friends and relations, is a way to be present to them on several levels. Buying Fair Trade, from responsibly managed forests (FSC), Recycled, Cruelty -free, and/or Organic gifts can have global impact and  show the recipient that you have attended to their preferences.


Let’s not forget the delicious warmth and surprise of gift giving.  Kristof notes that children, in particular, can learn (by giving to those organizations he lists) "when they were small that giving isn’t a sacrifice but a source of meaning and connection."  Dr. Price-Mitchell of Roots for Change points out that ...research in child development tells us something important about what happens in children’s internal worlds when they give to others. The gift-giving process helps shape their identities."  She points to many opportunities (and giving to a relief organization might be one) that helps support the growth in empathy and caring as part of that identity. My sense is that for giving to have that genuine effect, it needs to be heartfelt and visible on many  levels. Giving a physical gift, especially one that is homemade or bought with the person's values in mind, is one tangible way to support that growth.