Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Great Gift of Nothing

With my final blog post of 2011, I decided it's time to share my gift-giving philosophies with the world.  To be more precise, I should clarify that what's about to follow are actually my thoughts and feelings about why gift-giving is overrated and entirely unnecessary.  Gifts detract from the true meaning of Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and other holidays, and no one knows better what I want and need than myself.

Feeling like people may not embrace or even understand my philosophy without a little elaboration, I did some research and came across some alarming statistics: 40% of all gifts are a disappointment to the recipient, and the average person spends $35,000 over his lifetime on gifts that the recipient didn't want.  Whether it's the wrong size, the wrong color, or just a plain bad idea, recipients are often left with gifts that they're too embarrassed to return, fearing that they will offend the giver.  Worst of all, they feel obligated to reciprocate the "favor" by giving a gift of their own, and so begins a vicious cycle of unnecessary generosity.

I realize that my views on giving will likely shock to those of you who read last year's holiday blog post--you may recall that around this time last year, I was dreaming of a green Christmas as I furiously wrapped a tree-load of gifts with a variety of old newspapers and magazines.  Christmas 2011 was no exception--I once again put a healthy stack of outdated newspapers to good use as I prepared for the holidays.  But if you jumped to the conclusion that I go through an elaborate process of requesting wish lists from friends and loved ones and carefully shopping for the perfect gifts, then you are painfully mistaken.

You see, what those layers of ancient newspapers conceal are primarily re-gifted items that I received from other people and passed along to the next unsuspecting recipient, along with free food samples from work, many of which are months (or even years) past their expiration date. This year, I even gifted a library book that I checked out a few weeks ago and need to return to the library shortly after Christmas. Despite my beautiful pile of gifts each year, I've decided to reveal the truth as 2011 draws to a close.  You're probably familiar with the phrase "it's better to give than to receive."  When it comes to traditional gift-giving, I'm a firm believer in a slightly different phrase: "it's better to neither give nor receive."

Oddly enough, I haven't always thought this way. As a child, receiving gifts each Christmas was a memorable and spectacular event, because so many of the things I wanted were out of reach with my weekly allowance.  Yet by tenth grade, my focus had shifted away from material possessions to the true meaning of the holidays: a coma-inducing two-week food binge, along with the mental purging of everything I had learned over the past semester in school.  It was around that time that I really started to struggle to come up with a wish list for Christmas.

Once adulthood hit, exchanging gifts had become all but irrelevant.  The one bright spot that came with soul-crushing, full time work was the bi-weekly paycheck. These days, if I want something, I buy it.  And, as anyone who has visited my apartment knows, there simply aren't very many somethings that I want. Sure, I ask for a 370Z each Christmas, but my hopes of actually receiving a new car are about as realistic as my hopes of permanently abolishing winter weather in Minnesota, which I also put on my Christmas list each year.

When it comes to receiving gifts, the best present anyone can give me is nothing at all--370Zs aside, I have everything I need, and anything else is just unnecessary clutter.  If family members insist on getting me something for by birthday, I ask that the gift is practical, that it's something that I will definitely use, and that it is edible or otherwise consumable.  That's why, for my most recent birthday, I received the following gifts: Chap Stick, toilet paper, dental floss, and a box of Kleenex. Best birthday ever!

I credit this philosophy as the reason for a compliment that a friend recently bestowed upon my apartment: "It looks like an Apple Store in here!"  The spectacularly overwhelming, bare-walled nothingness, which has been known to cause waves of dizziness and nausea among first-time visitors, is a testament to my philosophy: when it comes to gift-giving, nothing is everything. (Oddly enough, I have the same philosophy when it comes to John Denver music.)

Though my views on gift-giving developed around Christmastime, they quickly expanded as my friends started to get married. When the first of my friends got married five years ago, I caved to society's pressure and bought a wedding gift...but not without feeling sickened that I had betrayed my sacred beliefs.  Here I was, giving a gift to a pair of grown adults, both of whom worked full-time jobs and were hardly lacking in any way.

The more I thought about it, the concept of the wedding gift registry seemed almost laughable--it strikes me as more of a hostage situation than a way of congratulating friends on marriage.  Not only does society dictate that you will purchase a wedding gift (regardless of whether you actually attend the wedding!), but the bride- and groom-to-be provide the invitees with a list of demands.

A few years later, I received a wedding invitation from another friend. But this time I stayed true to my beliefs, and I showed up at the wedding with the exact same gift that I expect from my closest friends: absolutely nothing.  Months later, when another friend mentioned that he'd noticed my lack of gift at the wedding, I realized that I had erred--not in failing to bring a gift to the wedding, but in failing to provide an adequate explanation for my lack of gift.  I hadn't intended to be rude, and I was in no way trying to send a negative message; I had just decided to take a stand and stay true to my beliefs.  That's where this blog post will come in handy--the next time I'm invited to a wedding, I'll hand a printed copy of this post directly to the bride and groom.

You see, many people misinterpret my distaste for gift-giving as outright cheapness on my part, but that couldn't be further from the truth.  My philosophies are nothing more than a grand application of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like others to treat you. I can only assume the same principle holds true when it comes to gifting: if you want nothing, give nothing.  In my experience, if you give gifts, the recipients feel like they need to get you something in return, regardless of how many times you say that you want nothing at all.  I decided it was time to put my revolutionary idea into practice and finally break this vicious, unnecessary gift-giving cycle...and actions certainly speak louder than words.

Emboldened by moral triumph at the wedding, I thought I'd conquered all my gift-related concerns.  But later that year, my gifting philosophies clashed with a holiday volunteer event at work. Leading up to Christmases 2009 and 2010, my entire division participated in The Salvation Army's Adopt-A-Family program, in which we sponsored several low-income families.  We received Christmas wish lists for the members of these families, divided into teams, and spent the day shopping and wrapping gifts.

Though I welcome any excuse to escape an ordinary day at the office, pretending to get work done, I take issue with several aspects of Adopt-A-Family, as it combines three of my most dreaded pastimes: shopping (in this case, mostly for children), spending time with middle-aged co-workers, and using traditional wrapping paper. (Yes, I tossed the newspaper/magazine wrapping idea out there, but it was promptly shot down.)

Worst of all, I felt as though we were doing these children a great disservice.  Should we really teach poor kids that the holidays are all about material possessions?  If we fill the underside of the Christmas tree with toys this year, what happens if no one sponsors the family next year? Planting the evil seed of consumerism seems like a spectacularly bad idea.

The way I see it, poor children are uniquely positioned to appreciate the true meaning of the holidays and to enjoy the few things that they do possess--the drafty, run-down apartment that they get to call home; the mangy, rabid family pet; and the grimy sock puppet that mom nabbed from the janitor's closet last Christmas.

And so for two straight years, for the sake of my continued employment, I kept my mouth shut as I shopped and wrapped gifts with my co-workers, once again betraying my gift-giving beliefs.  As another Christmas approaches, however, I realize what I should have done. Both of those years, I turned down a golden opportunity when I declined to be the volunteer driver who would deliver all of the wrapped gifts to the Salvation Army headquarters in my fine, fine Chevy Malibu.  Looking back, I should have jumped at the chance to deliver those presents...

Along the way, I would have dropped off the gifts at some sort of charity for the supremely wealthy, where all of those unnecessary presents would go to families who are already spoiled by America's overly materialistic view of the holidays. When I pulled up at the Salvation Army, I would bring with me a one small, newspaper-wrapped gift for each family on the Adopt-A-Family list.  That's precisely where, once again, this blog post would serve me well--inside each package, I would provide a copy of this post, explaining why they received absolutely nothing for Christmas and should feel grateful for it.

I realize that in the first year, this blog post might deliver a bit of a harsh message for low-income families, so I would consider throwing a little something in to help soften the blow of receiving nothing...perhaps a small bag of airline peanuts stapled to the blog post would do the trick. When the next Christmas rolled around, I would leave the children nothing but a single note, reminding them that if they were feeling disappointed, they should also feel guilty and ashamed of themselves for not appreciating the true meaning of the holidays.

My ultimate goal is to change society's views of gift-giving, one Christmas, one birthday, and one wedding at a time.  Friends and family members repeatedly tell me that one person can't overhaul a whole system of traditions, but I respond by saying that the world needs innovative thinkers to make radical changes.  If it weren't for visionaries like Rosa Parks, Steve Jobs, and me, we'd be riding around on segregated buses full of people listening to portable 8-track players and buying all kinds of unnecessary crap for one another.  But in the end, maybe I'm not as opposed to gift-giving as I first thought...when it comes down to it, shame and guilt are still gifts, right?

A Closing Footnote: The Great Cash Debacle
I couldn't hit the "Publish" button on a blog post about gift-giving without mentioning society's conflicting views of cash and gift cards as gift options. For the life of me, I can't comprehend why cash is considered a thoughtless and tacky gift, while gift cards continue to surge in popularity.

Cash avoids may of the common pitfalls of normal gifts--it doesn't take up space, it can be spent anywhere, saved, or invested, and it never expires.  Maybe the uppity folks of high society have tainted cash as a gift because they find it just too obvious and simple?  Personally, I admire a gifter who recognizes the truth of the situation and proudly announces with a cash-stuffed envelope: "You know yourself better than I could ever know you, so pick out your own gift!"

In my extensive research, I uncovered some staggering information about the gift card industry, which was created by Blockbuster Video in the mid-90s.  (You'd think that with such innovative thinking, they would have seen Netflix coming...)  As of last year, gift cards were on the fast track to becoming a $100 billion industry, and over the next four years, experts predict that online gift card purchases will grow at nearly 30% a year.  Clearly, gift cards are a perfectly acceptable--and very popular--gift option.

The way I see it, gift cards offer essentially the same level of thoughtlessness as a pile of money, with one significant distinction--the gift giver dictates where you have to spend the money.  Gift cards are essentially cash without freedom...which seems downright un-American, doesn't it?  To make matters worse, lots of retailers deduct a fee from the unused balance of a card if it isn't used after a certain amount of time. Better than cash? A more thoughtful gift?  I don't see it.

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