Healthy Habits

The Heart of Giving

“Too often we underestimate the power of giving a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring. All of which have the potential to lovingly turn a life around.” by Major Janene Zielinski

Do your friends and family have gift giving traditions for the holidays? Does the thought of gift giving and receiving cause a twinge of anxiety? Is there some way to make gift giving and receiving less stressful and possibly even a blessing for everyone involved?

When I was a child, our tradition was to have each smaller family unit bring gifts to the party for all the other extended family members. It was quite the cacophony of boxes and bows, people climbing over each other to pass out the big pile of gifts, and children sitting all over the floor ripping paper and shouting with glee. As the family grew and the kids got a bit older, it was decided to draw names for the adults and give gifts to all the children. One year we decided that the gift for the adult whose name was drawn should come from a non-profit. Later we dropped giving gifts to the adults and only gave gifts to the children. Some families I’ve heard from have chosen to forgo giving items altogether and opt to enjoy special experiences together such as an adventurous outing or special vacation instead. Gift giving traditions can be wonderful, but it’s sometimes good to consider alternatives as friends and family situations are unique.

Why we give gifts

A reminder from the Bible tells us, “Each [man] should give what [he] has decided in [his] heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV). Scientists tell us that the giver gets a hormone boost that dispels depression—it’s called “the giver’s high.” There are many reasons to give gifts. Some folks give gifts to make a good impression, some to make the receiver happy, and others to apologize.

Gift giving has an interesting history and varies widely from culture to culture. Pacific North West Native American tribe leaders established their power by giving everything away. They could afford to give everyone a gift because of the cultural expectation of reciprocity—they knew by giving they’d receive back. Giving gifts was a symbol of power and any leader who hoarded saw their power diminish.

Capitalism has taught us that every transaction must be fair—an even trade for goods or services—and these expectations of reciprocity have spilled over into our gifting culture. In some cases, it seems modern American culture has flipped the system—there are those who try to get as much as they can, while giving as little as possible. Sadly, gift giving becomes an obligation rather than a genuine gift from the heart. 

For people like me who aren’t naturally good at finding just the right gift, I like to plan way ahead. Lately, I’ve been attempting to pay more attention to the preferences of the people I want to give to. For some of us, choosing “just the right gift” is a skill we can practice and hopefully sharpen. As we pay attention to our loved one’s preferences, it shows our care and love in very practical ways. Hopefully we can all be “cheerful givers” no matter how it is received. It can be disappointing if you give a gift to someone, and they abuse it, waste it or return it for a refund. Don’t let that discourage you. You gave from your heart and that is what matters.

How we should receive

For some, the act of giving is easy, but the hard part is receiving. We might give a self-deprecating response such as: “You shouldn’t have,” or “This is too much.” Or, possibly we aren’t even sure what the item is and are afraid to ask.

In some families we may have been taught to decline a gift; say, “No, thank you” or “It’s not necessary.” We push it away and sometimes try to refuse it! Maybe we were told to never expect gifts or accept them. Maybe our “receiving muscles” have atrophied or we don’t know what to say.

A gift from someone can be hard to receive unless we understand that it is a spiritual act to receive gracefully. Accepting someone’s gift—whether a material gift, or a gift of service or time—is really a token of their love—so it is an act of love to receive it joyfully.

Some of us may have that joy blocked because we have been taught the model of “quickly reciprocating” or risk being considered selfish or cheap. As a young child I remember my neighbor had a “gift closet.” She would shop year-round for good deals on “gift-type” items and store them away so she could always be ready to immediately reciprocate a gift for a gift. With my child eyes I didn’t understand the point, but I did see the pleasure on my neighbor’s face when she would have “just the right thing” she could quickly gift back to the giver, or sometimes be able to give a gift to someone who had unexpectedly been left out at a party. It was as though she had paid off something owed. However, I also realized she had a big heart and enjoyed the act of giving. Receiving a gift gave her a socially acceptable reason to give back.

It’s important to realize you are not diminishing yourself by allowing someone to give to you. It is quite the opposite. By NOT allowing them to give, you are stealing their blessing! Don’t deny allowing someone that good feeling that comes with giving from the heart. If you do, then you are robbing the giver and yourself the chance to care and connect with each other. A Bible verse explains: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25 NIV).

A great way to show love is to be a “gracious getter!” Show your appreciation by sharing with the giver how you might use or enjoy the gift and how it made you feel loved that they thought to give it to you. What about the gift makes you smile? Is it the color, the brand, the feel of it, the style? Try to determine something about the gift that you can sincerely let them know makes you happy. 

This holiday season, give generously from your heart, but also bless those who give to you by being a gracious getter! And, in your giving, don’t forget that it is not all about boxes and bows. As Bishop Michael Curry says, “Too often we underestimate the power of giving a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring. All of which have the potential to lovingly turn a life around.”