The gift of experience

In December, we predictably find a lot of articles on gift giving.  What should we give?  To whom should we give?  Why should we give?  Do we give too much to some people and not enough to others?  One of my favorite articles of this type was written by Matthew Yglesias for Slate, and posted late enough in the season to give most people an opportunity to view their own pile of packages with remorse.  It evaluated the “deadweight loss” of much giving (the difference between what the giver paid and how much it is actually worth to the person who receives it,) and asserted that gift giving should be “redistributive.”  It also made a good case for spreading out our giving through the year (particularly through serendipitous giving), rather than doing the majority of it during a brief window at the end of the year.

Another suggestion he made was that it was better to give an experience than an object.  This distinction – between object and experience – seems clear at first.  As the tagline at the top of the browser puts it: “Scarves, no.  Surfing lessons, yes.”  But on Christmas day, I found the more helpful advice to be the author’s broader: “embrace risk.”  After all, while the dichotomy between scarves and surfing lessons is clear, other objects carry experience within them.  And the gift certificate for surfing lessons may go unused, which would transform the certificate into the most worthless of objects – a used piece of paper.

My idea of a good Christmas, from a “what cool stuff did I get?” perspective, hasn’t changed very much since I was a child.  No matter what else I unwrap, I want at least one thing I can play with right away – that afternoon.  I want at least one object that carries an (immediately accessible) experience within it.  As a child, that was easy – there were any number of toys that I could begin interacting with right away.  As a grown up, amidst the alluring springform pans (make a cheesecake!), the exciting lessons (learn a new skill!), the brand new clothing (look different!), there are few items that fit the demand, “entertain me now!”:  a new gadget, new music, or (most often) a new book.

There is, of course, danger in giving a book – even a book that the recipient has asked for.  If they do not like it, the best case scenario is that it is transformed back into an inert object, collecting dust on a shelf.  The gift also contains the possibility inherent in all gifts: the incredulous “why did they think I would want that?” Giving a book that you have not yet read could result in discovering later some embarrassing content that you did not realize was there.  Then again, it gives you a defense (“Sorry! I hadn’t read it!”) that you do not have if you have in fact read it.  The latter can reveal a rift that was unknown until the recipient discovered something disturbing on page 173 – something that the giver blissfully glossed over when reading the book months earlier.

But in the best case scenario, the book is read and enjoyed, and so becomes (no less than surfing lessons) an experience.  The hours spent with the book are hours spent re-categorizing ideas and events, re-evaluating previously held beliefs, re-visiting other, older experiences.  The book inspires, the book moves one to speech, exclaiming, “Yes!” and then reading passages aloud to others in the room.  The book creates a sense of community with the author and with others who have read the book – a reassurance that the reader is not alone, together with a new, clearer articulation of the inchoate scraps of thought swirling just beneath the surface of her/his conscious thought.

Of course, Christmas is not primarily about gift giving – or at least it ought not to be.  It is a celebration of the Word made flesh for our salvation – the Feast of the Incarnation – a day for remembering the one who came for the purpose of bringing us back home to God.  As such, I would build on the economist’s idea that we “get the most bang for our gift-giving buck” – and suggest that in all of our giving (but particularly on Christmas), our aim should be to reveal Christ through our giving – to be the vessels through which others are brought closer to God.  There could be no greater return on our investment.

I don’t know how much of this went into my brother’s thinking (who is, himself, a Christian who holds a degree in finance), and how much instead he was simply struck with, “This is perfect!”  But his gift of William Abraham’s Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism was all that my childish “entertain me now!” impulse might lead me to desire.  At the same time, it has revealed Christ to me anew, at a time when I was especially needing to better articulate what it means that God speaks.  Especially in the face of my conviction, growing over the past ten years, that certain “reasonable” limits accepted in modern theology exposed the functional atheism of many who wished to continue to proclaim Christ for whatever reason.

A book IS an experience.  Thanks, James, for giving me Abraham’s book, instead of surfing lessons.  Though I wouldn’t be surprised if surfing lessons top my adventurous daughter’s list in about ten years.

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