This summer I turned 34. In that time period a dear friend of mine said “I got a present for you”, implying that this promise was to be fulfilled at some future date. Well, December has come and almost gone with, still, no present. I’ve been wrestling with this. First is to admit that I am in fact disappointed. I like gifts, especially ones from dear friends. To come across as unfazed by not receiving this by saying polite things like “don’t worry about it” would be dishonest with myself and him, at best. And at it’s worst would actually be incredibly numb. In the words of Simon and Garfunkle “a rock feels no pain; And an island never cries.” So, what then to do with this pain?
With this breach of contract and relationship? This may sound like extreme language but a promise was in fact broken. And if we approach this from another angle of asking the question: “How do we want people to feel when they receive a gift from us?” I hope we would use words like, “excited, appreciated, cared for, understood, loved” (if those are not the words we are thinking about there’s a good chance we’re buying the wrong kind of gifts). If this is the emotion that a landed gift is supposed to illicit it would stand to reason that an un-landed gift should invoke the opposite. Disappointment, hurt, and a feeling of separation. These are not choices but the economy of friendship. This is how it’s supposed to work. It’s not broken. The question should not be if we have feelings but how do we direct these feelings in a way that re-constructs or builds into the future of the relationship? If we do not wrestle with the latter question, a rift will start to form in the relationship. We may not see it at first, we may not know it exists, we may not acknowledge it but it will be there. We will be more guarded. And I didn’t want this. So after choosing between awkwardness and intimacy I chose intimacy. I think that maybe, this is why the God of the Bible didn’t mind people holding him to his own promises even when it bordered on nagging annoyance. So, I said “Hey, this is kind of awkward but you owe me a birthday present.” Why? Not, because I’m awesome or because I deserve it. But because you promised it. Although it appears to be about self protection and accumulating for fancy stuff it is really a battle for friendship. For being together. The story is not finished and I don’t think my friend’s response is exciting enough to type out but I was happy to let him and I both know that I care more about our relationship than I do avoiding awkward moments or contemporary civility. We will be closer because of it.
I’ve never really known how to deal with my children buying me gifts. As a child, I remember buying my dad a bag of Kraft caramels every year because I had no idea what else to get him. I wonder how he felt about opening that wrapping every year? Well, as a parent of 5, I’m starting to understand. It seems like when receiving gifts from children the focal point is on “it’s the thought that counts”. In fact, it needs to be. I remember seeing a website that deconstructed children’s drawings. He would take various drawings that kindergartners did and talk about how the wheels were too big, the color wasn’t within the lines, and make corrections on how the American flag was red white and blue, NOT red, white, and yellow. Besides being incredibly funny (and crass) a point is made. Drawings from children are cute because children drew them. Period. It doesn’t matter how they look. In fact, sometimes the crazier and less accurate the cuter. Are gifts the same way? This last week we went to one of those large indoor water park hotel things for our company’s overnight Christmas party. While there, my son bought me a gift. It was a personalized mug with my name on it and some artist’s rendition of the water park branded all over it. It was a low quality mug, with a low quality drawing, for $10. It was taken from one of those racks that has 45 names on it and when my son saw it, he thought it was made for me because it was personalized. We all used to fall for that, right? But, everything was fine. It’s the thought that counts right? Wrong. Because then he asked me a very dangerous question. He asked “Would YOU have bought that?” Was I supposed to lie? Do I try and tell the truth and then try and over compensate by letting him know that “the thought” far over whelmed the low quality of the purchase? The gig was up. And then something crazy happened, at least in my brain.
First you need a little back story. I would consider myself one of the most difficult people to buy a gift for. My mix of taste is erratic, inconsistent, black and white, and firm. Combine that with the fact that I’m fairly impulsive and once I set my mind to something, chances are I will have it somehow, someway, soon. Take coffee mugs for example. I’m super picky. When at home I will drink coffee from 2 types of mugs. The Bodum double walled glass OR the certain ceramic mug shaped like an hour glass. We have 8 of the glass mugs and 2 of the ceramic mugs. Now I could explain to you why I like these mugs, how they function, and the story that is behind them but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that it’s weird and complicated, and specific to me. So, in that way I’m a very difficult person to buy gifts for. And until now, I’ve just kind of left it at that and given up on getting the types of gifts I would actually like from my children. Because my son, would have no idea about these things. And how should he? It’s not common sense, you can’t even find it on wikipedia, and the marketing companies of large water park hotels will not help guide him towards the answers. And now he was asking to understand me. And it was at this point that I realized I had taken the safer route.
My son was asking to know me. The bottleneck wasn’t in his curiosity or intellect it was in my stooping down to his level and taking the risk of being known. It’s much safer to say “Oh, that’s a great gift, thank you so much” when deep down we believe the opposite. Because it’s harder to explain why you like blue instead of red or to let people know that you really do like that thing that seems embarrassing, expensive, or random. It can seem awkward and self-serving to sit your kids down and tell them what you desire and taste, because this will ultimately result in a list of things that you do not desire and taste. And while this is weird it’s weird because I’m a little weird. Or maybe “unique” is a better word. And in my uniqueness I want my kids to know me. And I want to know them. I think how I would have felt if my dad would have given me a list of things that he liked and didn’t like so I would have had an alternative to Kraft Caramels. Flannel, plaid, coffee, simple machines, Bose audio equipment, along with a list of why he appreciated those things. I don’t know if I would have bought any of those things but I know that I would have known my dad better. In the Bible, God is specific. He tells his people what he likes and what he doesn’t like. If you don’t understand it, it can be kind of annoying really. He get’s really specific. Measurements, colors, types of wood. He let’s them know that he doesn’t want sacrifice he wants their hearts. You could walk away annoyed at how selfish and specific he is. But there’s another response. You could say “wow, there’s a guy that wants to be known and is willing to communicate it with a group of people that are much lower than him.” That God values intimacy and relationship more than a lot of other things.
So, this Christmas, in the midst of a gift buying and politeness frenzy we’re going to sit down as a family and have some strange conversations. They might be awkward. But we’re in this for the long haul. In the end, we will all be closer and know each other a little better. So ask some questions. You can start with my son’s: “Would you have bought that? Why or why not?” And, consider taking the risk with those you love and let them know the truth. Let them know you.