I firmly believe there is truth in this quote. We all have been on the giving and receiving end of gifts, and – let’s face it – sometimes have given things that were not quite as thoughtful as they could have been, and sometimes received gifts that might have been coming from the heart, but did not make us nearly as happy as the giver thought they would.
I’m not talking about the thoughtless supply of socks, ties and atrocious oversized pullovers (boys and men) or crafting supplies, kitchen utensils and dolls (girls and ladies) that thoughtlessly end up in our collective laps. Christmas is a typical example for this: we are obliged to find presents for many people at once, yet not put one above the other. No, I’m talking about things that were given with the intention of making someone happy rather than out of a seasonal obligation. Birthday gifts usually are given a lot more thought than Christmas gifts, simply because they tend to be less rushed and more unique because birthdays are distributed across the year.
That being said, let’s return to the gifts: even what started out as a thoughtful gift could easily end up being something the receiver doesn’t need or like after all. Those are gifts that turn into poisoned apples after a while. Most of us are brought up with the notion to “not look a gift horse in the mouth”, meaning that we should not reject anything that is given to us. This is a sign of common curtesy towards the giver, but does it always help the receiver? Not really. However, as a curtesy we usually try our best to look as if we are enjoying the gift enormously.
These social norms give us something to ponder: they are not about the gift itself, but about the act of giving. Giving something indicates that we hold that person dear and wish to make them happy. Receiving something graciously shows that we hold the giver in esteem. The gift is really just the catalyst for this social interaction and originally was not as important as it is these days. Yes: a thoughtful, useful gift has additional undertones, but it was and is socially acceptable to give flowers, a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine, in the past it was also appreciated to contribute by singing a song or performing on the piano. The common thread here is that all these things are ephemeral, once consumed they disappear.
Nowadays, gifts have become more physical: that atrocious vase you got given by your great-aunt, the wardrobe you inherited from your mother when she moved to smaller quarters, the ugly plates you got as a wedding gift and never use, … think for a moment and you’ll probably find similar items in your household that came to you as a gift and never made it out the door again.
The ephemeral gifts come without strings beyond signs of friendship, but the physical stuff tends to stay with you forever. Clearly we do neither need nor want to have them around, so what makes us keep them? It’s a perceived social obligation that makes us hang on to a lot of things. And that brings us back to the “gift horse” and its mouth: I strongly believe that this saying really only pertains to the moment of gifting and that we should be free to let go of things after a grace period. The whole point of any gift is the act of giving and receiving, anything beyond that is really up to you. If you find the gift useful, beautiful or feel it makes a positive contribution to your household, by all means, keep it!
However, if you do not use it, believe it to be ugly or it reminds you of someone you don’t like, don’t hang on to it on the off chance that at some vague point in the future you might feel awkward about not having it any longer. If you believe that someone is going to be very disappointed, you could always explain the situation and make sure they understand your reasoning. As a worst case scenario you could always use a white lie like “I gave it to someone else who liked it very much” or similar to calm the waters.
Is this necessary for your own wellbeing? Absolutely. Is it impolite towards the giver? Not at all.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.