Friday, February 15, 2013

Giving Gifts v. Experiences

Towards the end of the Diane Rehm show on shopping addiction, one guest shared something that I found really encouraging:


“So I created a new tradition in my family that I don't actually give gifts. We give experiences. So about five years ago when I first finished my master's in financial planning, I really learned that my family had a lot of these issues that I've come to know quite a bit about now. I knew nothing about them then. And so I created a new tradition. I don't give gifts at all for birthdays, Christmas, anything. But what I do is we give experiences. And so we spend more time together. We do things that really build relationships. And I've now taught my grandchildren the same thing. It was rough the first couple of years.”


The person who shared that new tradition was a recovering shopping addict, and was finding a new way to cope with holidays and other gift-giving occasions.  Like a recovering alcoholic trying to navigate employer cocktail parties, that must be a very tough situation on many levels.  Dealing with addiction while juggling social expectations must be a challenge.


It was also fascinating to me that this same person realized her family also had a lot of the same issues.  So often in life, one of us will hit rock bottom with a particular problem that wrecks our life.  As we get a handle on that problem, we look around us and realize others have the very same problem.  But as this speaker seems to suggest, others may not yet be cognizant of their problem, let alone trying to take productive steps to deal with it.


The speaker said she no longer gives “gifts” for Christmas and birthdays, but she gives “experiences.”  I’ve heard plenty of people say that in other contexts, but often times what they mean is they give a gift card for AMC Movie Theatres, Massage Envy or for Applebee’s.  I don’t think that is what the speaker meant. 


Giving gift cards is nice in the sense that it doesn’t clutter up the recipient’s home.  Gifts do that.  Even when they are wonderful gifts. 


When my husband and I got married many years ago, we did so in his small hometown.  Everyone knows one another.  And it is deeply entrenched custom that everyone is invited and everyone gives a gift.  Some of the gifts might be small.  Indeed, like many small towns, my husband’s hometown has not had a lot of economic opportunity and most folks are not affluent.  At weddings a gift might be one single fork from a pattern of cutlery or one single tea cup from a place setting.  But everyone gives something.  My husband and I were so generously gifted on the occasion of our wedding, but we only had a tiny one bedroom apartment where the kitchen/living room blurred together without a dining room.  It was already cramped getting into that apartment once both of us had our stuff in it.  But with the arrival of wedding gifts, we literally had stacks all over the place and couldn’t even enjoy what we’d been given. 


Obviously, that is an extreme case, but every time any of us gives gifts that happens on a smaller scale.  Tangible gifts take up space.  George Carlin did a funny monologue once where he said “That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff.  If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house…Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house.  Why?  No room for your stuff anymore.”  (It was much funnier when you heard Mr. Carlin say those words; he had great intonation and timing.)


Anyhow, I don’t think the speaker of the quoted language from the Diane Rehm show was talking about gift cards.  She said, “But what I do is we give experiences. And so we spend more time together. We do things that really build relationships.”  I love that idea.  But it is hard to give experiences without engaging in the materialistic consumer culture all around us.  It is so deeply entrenched. 


But as my kids get older, I treasure those types of experiences and hope they do too.  Taking walks.  Reading aloud.  Cooking together.  Cleaning up the back yard.  Having a picnic.  Just last week, my kids were so thrilled to show me a “book” of art projects they had been working on.  Last night, my older daughter read me a “novel” she is writing in a spiral notebook.  Each time I had work that I would have liked to have done, but I thought about this quote from the Diane Rehm show and gave them the “gift” of my time.  Last week, we all got in bed and cuddled as they explained each drawing in their “book.”  They are easily amused, so they were cracking up at some of the drawings’ quirks, e.g., a missing arm, legs twice as long as the trunk of the person, etc. 


I worry sometimes that because of our consumer culture we are collectively losing our ability to spend time together without consuming products or services together, without spending money.  It is like consuming is all we know anymore.  We don’t know what to do if we aren’t consuming. 


So often when I visit with other middle class mommy friends, what they share is essentially a laundry list of consumer activities, e.g., we ate at Chili’s, then we had to go shopping for the Lego set for the next birthday party, then we had to get new Sketchers and there was a problem with a smart phone, so that had to be fixed.  My mind reels.  


We visited some relatives several years ago and it was so nice because we never get to see their family.  Our family was content hanging out at the local playground and playing at their home, but they kept wanting to take all the kids to the movies or go out to eat in very fancy restaurants.   


A sweet friend of mine recently lamented we never get to visit.  Her solution was that we ought to block out time to go out to dinner just the two of us. 


To me, just hanging out with people I love and enjoy is fun.  To spend time with people, it is not necessary to go spend money on movies or fancy restaurants.  I worry that in our culture most of us have lost sight of the simpler things in life.  Most of us seem to be stuck on a conveyor belt of consumeristic activities.  What’s more, most of us don’t seem to realize it.  To me, that realization is critical.  Most of our brothers and sisters on this planet do not live such extravagant lifestyles.  A majority of the human beings on this planet are just struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones.


2 Corinthians 9:8

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

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