The Essence of Gift

Fourth appointment with comments by Luigino Bruni on ‘Economy and Advent’

Comments – A Time to Understand the Precious ‘Liturgy’ of Relationships

by Luigino Bruni

Published  in Avvenire on 22/12/2012

logo_avvenireChristmas is a time for gifts, but it should be, and is, a time for presents.  Gifts and presents are different human acts, they live alongside each other, but they should not be confused one for the other.  In regaling something to someone (giving a gift), (a word which comes from regal, an offer to or from the king), the dimension of obligation prevails (which the Latins called munus).  Gifts are often given (though not always) to absolve oneself of an obligation, normally good ones, towards family members, friends, colleagues, suppliers, clients, individuals in responsible positions, etc… 

Upon visiting someone, especially on a holiday, if you do not bring a gift, you do not fulfill a sort of obligation, you break a good social convention. For this reason, the practice of gift giving conserves something of the archaic custom of ‘offerings,’ of cultural ‘sacrifices.’

Gifts are foreseen, regulated by social conventions, and in some cases expected (in many regions, wedding gifts are regulated by very rigidly observed, detailed rules, even while deeply indebting one).   It is no surprise therefore that an economist, Joel Waldfogel, showed, with data at hand, that Christmas gifts  destroy medially 20% of the value of gifts given because, if people could choose their own gifts instead of receiving them from others, their satisfaction would be higher.  

Therefore, this economist proposes to give money to friends and relatives – and this already happens habitually with sons, nephews, nieces, and relatives, since giving money becomes an easier way for those giving and those receiving.  Not bad, especially in the case of a wedding, when the young couple often have need of money to start up, as long as we do not call these practices, ‘presents.’

A present is another thing, its nature is different, it has another price, another value.  It is a matter of gratuity, it is a relational good, that is, an act whereby the main good is not the object given but the relationship between the giver and the receiver.  A present is not foreseen, it can be expected at times, it always exceeds, it is not tied to merit, it is surprising.  It is costly, and its main ‘currency’ is the attention, the care, and above all, the time taken. A present is an experience of ‘getting up hurriedly’, and ‘making’ oneself move towards the other.

Giving gifts is easy, one can get dozens in a pair of frenetic afternoons of shopping.

To give a present is more difficult, and this is why one gives and receives few of them. For a present one needs to invest time, to have deep empathy for the other, to be creative, make an effort, even risk ingratitude.  When a present is also expressed with something given, that present will forever be filled by that act of love, that relational good from which it sprang and which is always cause of rebirth.  When I won an important job contest, an older friend and colleague of mine gave me a fountain pen: he had it inscribed with my initials, he wrote a beautiful card (in content and form), and invited me to supper with his family in order to give it to me.  That pen was not a gift: it was a sign, a ‘sacrament’ of an important relationship, which is relived each time I use the pen. 

There are some signs that can help one distinguish a present from a gift.

1. There is no present without a personal and accurate note to accompany it.

2. The form counts as much as the substance: in a present, the ‘how’, ‘when,’ and ‘where,’ the present is given count as much as the ‘what’. 

3. Delivering the present can never be anonymous or hasty: it is essential to know how to waste time, as is the presence of both the giver and the receiver. 

It is a visitation, a looking at, and observing of one another.  The opening of the present, the facial expressions, the words spoken in the giving and the taking, are fundamental acts in the liturgy of a present, which is not altruism, not donation, but is essentially reciprocity of words, looks, emotions, gestures.  Touch is the first sense of a present. 

Gifts are meant for maintenance of relationships, but they do not heal them, transform them, re-create them.  A present instead, is a fundamental instrument, if not an indispensable one, for healing, reconciliation, starting over.  There exists in fact, a very deep rapport between present and forgiveness, and this, in many languages.  In English for example, to forgive, is not, to forget.  Since real forgiveness is not getting rid of a burden while forgetting the pain received.  It is a giving, not a getting, it is believing once again in a wounded relationship, where one says to the other (or at east to oneself): “I forgive you, I still believe in our relationship, I am ready to forgive you even if you were to hurt me again.”   There is no forgiveness without donation, and no donation without forgiveness. 

This for-giveness evidently has need of gratuity, of agape, and if these forgiving’s are missing, personal and social life cannot function, it can’t generate, it can’t be happy.  The Italy of today must overcome the culture of ‘condoning’ (which is opposite of giving), while it has extreme need of presents and for-giveness, at all levels, particularly in the public sphere: this, thinking about the tragic topic of jails and of their inmates.

A present is, then, a very serious thing, a political matter, it founds and re-founds civilization and life: we would not have survived our own birth if someone had not given us attention, care, and love.  No institution or human community is born and reborn without presents.  Let us take advantage of these last days of Christmas to transform some gifts into presents.

It isn’t impossible, and it can often give an anthropological and spiritual turn to a celebration, an encounter.  A forgiving, a new beginning. 

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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