Since we are moving towards the holidays I’ve condensed and republished my posts from The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser.
GIFT GIVING ISLANDS – Like islands, small and close-knit intimate spaces are where we find gift giving. Gift giving creates links between people through the ritual. Gifts are objects – handled in a special way. Each stands for far more than just itself. The object is a “tie” between two people. Truth is often found in the motives and intentions of its giver. Like a lasso thrown across a chasm, building a bridge. Gifts are expressions of personal affection and respect.
PARENTS, FAMILY & GIFT GIVING – People in their old age want relationship in love, something of the same kind of unconditional concern as they gave. Family relations are a complex mixture of duty and affection, characterized by love and attention, talking and actually caring. An old parent arrives, after a long journey at a stage in life when justice and respect from others is necessary and good, but love is better still. Gratitude is natural in that it enhances social cohesion and harmony, while ingratitude menaces these ties. The ancients saw ingratitude as monstrous – having fangs that tear at human hearts and rip apart the fabric of family and society. In Roman times, supporting parents in old age was personified as a stork. When elderly storks lost their feathers and their power to fly, their offspring covered them with their own plumage and fed them. The young birds also carried their parents about on their own wings, and solicitously exercised their stiff and feeble legs. No son can ever honor his parents as they deserve. The virtues of family gratitude rebuff the short-sightedness of self-enclosed individualism, materialism, greed, and living for one’s own immediate self-interest. Relationships between children and parents stand in contradiction to our modern rejections of hierarchy. Unquestionable relationship is the way the family benefits us. Long after grown children have left home, the family’s presence continues to loom large especially through hard times. Each helps create identity therefore weaving the family’s narrative. It’s a profound lifelong influence and part of civilization. How do societies stay the same, even as they change? Faithfulness, gratitude, keeping commitments, repetition, all assures continuance. These are tough threads that bind society together. Gratitude is the only feeling that seems to reside in a point in us which we do not allow to change.
GIFTS & MEMORIES – The memory is a frail vessel. Seneca advised giving someone a durable gift, because few people are indeed grateful if they do not regularly see the item received. He basically felt what is needed is an object capable of reviving the memory. It’s about understanding, thinking back or remembering, and appreciating. Man is essentially a story telling animal. Gratitude is about making the past continue to affect the present. In French, Merci, (thank-you) comes from the root words for commerce, merchant and market; Uttering Merci is about knowing the cost of something, its price. Recognizing the value of what has been given. An important feature of gratitude is its ability to bind a person into memory because to be deprived of memory is to lose one’s identity. Gratitude is deliberate memory, and expression of openness to others.
GIFTS & MEANING – Gift objects are a kind of shorthand for matters of great complexity. They represent what we find difficult to say or to discuss, matters that are often far more important than the things themselves. There are often mixed motives, an array of emotions and/or the satisfaction in giving and receiving. Thankfulness is a complex human emotion. Doing something proves gratitude. When we celebrate we may also feel amazement, love, and remembrance. These are all aspects of gratitude. Giving and receiving produces a kind of glow and radiance. The imagery is of light, and gleaming, and gladness, icing on the cake as well as an awareness of the frailty of good fortune. Receiving is about appreciating the kindness, contemplating and reacting in awe. It is akin to such things as the wonder of life and even the marvel that is our own consciousness. Life is the cyclic movement of time – the yearly, eternal return of the seasons – as it opens to make room for the unfolding of a “historical” narrative. On this stage, people giving objects or doing favors, receiving, being grateful, and giving again that forms the backbone of many stories and subplots.
THE THREE GRACES – The Graces, it was generally agreed, represented the social obligations of giving, receiving, and returning gifts and favors. They danced holding hands because a benefit passes from one person to another and eventually returns to the giver. Elegance, circulating without hitch, the whole cycle is joyous. Gifts must not be bribes but rather “pure and undefiled and holy in the eyes of all, young because the memory of a gift should not “grow old, open-hearted and without hidden intentions when giving, receiving, and returning gifts and favors. Some apply the proverb to ungrateful people always accepting kindness in some form and giving nothing in return.”
The book was old fashioned, but profound.