When Is A Gift Not A Gift?

That Looks A Lot Like a Riddle. What Fun!

When you read these posts I hope you also read the replies, because many of them are more thought-provoking than the posts that inspired them! For instance, last time when I wrote about how I perceived Heifer International to be a great model of a gift economy. Lisa responded that it is a great business model, but not a true example of gifting because the recipient of a heifer or other animal is expected to take care of the animal in a prescribed way and pass the “gift” to another family. In contrast a true gift, according to Lisa…and Eisenstein…is given freely with no expectations.

I love it when people reply because it gets me to thinking stuff I would never have thought to think. And now that I have thought to think about Eisenstein’s and Lisa’s distinction I have decided to respectfully disagree; instead, I am now seeing gifting as an evolving door. I know you probably think I mean REvolving door, but I don’t. What I mean is that we can open the door to the idea of becoming a gift rather than a market economy, but the view is a long one. It is going to take trial and error and working it in stages before it has a chance to evolve into its true potential. And if we begin by gifting indiscriminately in a world with limited resources and people accustomed to a system of scarcity and greed, we will soon run short of both resources and patience. The unavoidable truth is that people get no satisfaction of giving a gift that is unappreciated and/or ill-used, so it seems to me that setting appropriate parameters at the beginning could make the crucial difference in creating a more beautiful world vs. abandoning the notion of a gift culture all together.

Oh yeah, and while we are speaking of distinctions and definitions–because we were, or at least I was–Eisenstein describes a gift as something that one person or entity has in excess, given without expectations, to another who has a need. Yes!…AND in my opinion it can also be something one does not have in excess but just gives for the pleasure of bringing expected joy. Here’s an example: one day I was visiting with a dear, dear friend of mine who admired my amethyst ring and said that one day she hoped to own one, too, since it was her favorite stone. Spontaneously–which is not necessarily the same as the “freely” in Eisenstein’s definition–I pulled it off my finger and put it on hers, saying, “It is yours!” Her eyes teared up, but she did not protest because we both knew it was right. I  had enjoyed the ring for 40 years, and now I wanted her to feel its joy as well. Every time I see her, she stretches out her hand and says, “See my ring? Don’t you just love it?” To witness her joy is a greater blessing to me than owning the ring. However, if she had taken the ring and then never worn it…well, I would be pissed because the ring did have value to me. Therefore, my slogans going forward are, do not cast your amethysts before swine, and don’t pretend to be altruistic if you are not. Eisenstein, in fact, totally agrees with the latter: he says never give unless you really, really want to–because we can only evolve into a gift economy if we are authentic. And I would add the caveat, “And stop giving to that person if the gift is abused, and give to someone else instead.” That way the gifts will keep giving, and isn’t that what we all want anyway–to cultivate a society evolving into giving rather than taking?

So when is a gift not a gift? It has nothing to do whether it is given spontaneously or thought-through over a long period of time. because I know of a lot of very special gifts that were well-thought through, and I have also experienced gifts that were spontaneously given. It also has little to do with whether the giving is accompanied by expectations. The true test of whether something functions as gift is that it should…drum roll...uplift! Uplift the giver, uplift the recipient and eventually uplift society at large. The answer to the riddle, therefore is, a gift is not a gift when it fails to uplift. Write on, J.K.!

2 thoughts on “When Is A Gift Not A Gift?

  1. Janie Lasik

    One thing I really like about everyone’s posts is how they make me think with a smile on my face. How pleasant! I like J.K.’s distinction here and the reasoning behind it. But I also like the “unconditional” giving that Lisa defines. Can we have both in the “gift” definition? HMMM…I’ve certainly gotten “gifts” that were open-heartedly given but that I didn’t use. When I got them, I was “uplifted” (because someone thought enough to give me something)and I certainly tried to make the giver feel uplifted at the time of the gift. But if the giver noticed my lack of using it, did their initial “uplift” go away? So then is it not a gift? OR…maybe a gift economy exists based on NEED rather than WANT…so if I have extra wood and someone needs some for their fireplace…or in the case of the Heifer model, once I have more than I actually need, passing a calf onto someone else and showing that person in need how to care for it and sustain themselves.

    (I pause to ponder here).

    So maybe a gift ECONOMY is different than just a gift? The amethyst friend didn’t “need” the ring. She wanted one and J.K.wanted to give it to her. Both were uplifted (emotionally) at the time of the exchange (meets J.K.’s definition)…and having the amethyst friend wear the ring regularly and obviously appreciating it again uplifts them both emotionally…so there was give back here as well. A gift that kept on giving…So is there a time limit? If the amethyst friend eventually stops wearing the ring, what happens?…and what if she gets another ring and passes this one along? (Now I’m just playing “what ifs”…smile.)

    (More ponder time)

    Yeah, I like them both. If I want to give someone something for the pure joy of it, that’s a gift. I really prefer to just let it go with just the joy of giving it. It’s really wonderful when/if I see it appreciated, and that encourages me to look forward to giving more (I think this may be the key). For a gift economy to work, the giver would have to feel joyful and encouraged to give again…otherwise the cycle stops.

  2. Lisa

    A gift is a gift when it UpLifts! Both giver and receiver. LOVE IT!

    To me, gifting seems like a scale. My 100% gifts are given with non-attachment. My fullest joy was in the giving and it doesn’t matter what the receiver does. 100% gift. But, I’m probably rarely in that “pure non-attachment” phase. So sue me, I’m human. : ) Even a 50% gift is damn good. I’m moderately attached to what the receiver does or feels about it. And maybe we’re “spliting semantics” here, anyway. I don’t mean anything perjorative about Heiffer. I LOVE their model. I just consider it more of a barter or trade or business deal. But I think it’s an awesome barter or trade or business deal, and would like to see more of these in the world. Responsibility. Obligation. I don’t think of those when I think of gift, but I do think of those when I think of Heiffer and I think it’s Right On. Maybe it depends on the what ends we’re seeking. I give a friend some earrings. I hope she gets joy from them, but I don’t give her guidelines on how to clean them, where she should store them, that she should buy earrings for another friend, etc. But THE PENULTIMATE REASON I support Heiffer is because they do have obligations and responsibility built right in to their “gift”, so that it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Ahhh, I’m back to “splitting semantics” I think.

    Love the ring story. It’s so fun that it made me grin ear to ear! Keep writing, baby!


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