Gifts are never between equals. The giver always assumes an ascendancy over the recipient. The recipient is always in the giver's debt. Gifts always have strings attached: the best gift is the one with the fewest strings.
There are three kinds of gifts; The least perfect, the more perfect and the most perfect.
The least perfect is one in which both the giver and the recipient know who gave and who received. The gift can be one of an affectionate parent, aunt or uncle, a friend or colleague on the occasion of a birthday or some other occasion. It is expected that this will be reciprocated upon a similar event, and so the gift in some sense preserves a balance of indebtedness, a parity of sorts.
The gift may imply a quid pro quo. Flower, candy and a dinner date, once accepted, imply a promise of favors in return. A very fancy, socially acceptable payment-in-advance for what, under less seemly circumstances, would be sadly meretricious. A "favor for a favor" as it might be seen in the business or political world, where no gift, however small, is without the overtone of bribery. The corrupt and self-serving gift which allows the vulgar parade of avarice under the shabby guise of altruism. The "proud sponsor" endorsement that allows the impersonal, corporate glutton to ride the coat tails of a popular, politically-neutral cause.
The gift may be one that, as the penny for the blind beggar, further demeans the recipient--who can give nothing whatever in return, but has no choice but to accept charity or starve--and aggrandizes the Lady Bountiful in her self-righteous splendor: she may give but will accept nothing in return save humble thanks. "You are in need and I am not, and my gift will do nothing to change this condition, but will rather preserve it by depriving you of the means to help yourself. I will keep you alive for another day, but will make you utterly dependent upon my cold and continued charity." This gift creates resentment and hatred, damages both parties, nourishes the seeds of bloody revolution.
The more perfect gift is one in which the anonymous giver knows who receives but the recipient does not know who gave, thus establishing no direct indebtedness. The righteous glow of do-gooding is mitigated somewhat by the absence of direct humbling. The beggar need not grovel, the inferior need not doff his hat and tug at his forelock; a thank-you note is not required. Resentment is kept to a minimum, at least.
The most perfect gift is that in which the giver does not know who receives and the recipient does not know who gave. No painful indebtedness is created, no reeking glow of patronage tarnishes the exchange.
Given that we live in an imperfect world, in which some have too much and some not enough, this is the best we can expect. We all of us are sometime or another in need, and we all of us at some time or another have too much: be it of goods, or money, or food, or love, or things of the flesh, or things of the spirit, so there can be no shame in taking when help of this sort is offered, and no credit when help of this sort is needed. In a perfect world, each would give according to his abilities, and each would take according to his need. but since that will not come to pass, neither in this world nor in the next, this is the best we can expect.
(April 29, 2008)
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