How (Not) to Give a Christmas Present

Here in Korea, giving gifts is illegal.

At least certain kinds of gifts are illegal. Specifically, illegal are those gift-giving instances in which the recipient has some influence or authority over the giver. It’s called the Kim Young Ran Law, and it’s designed to curtail corruption, or “graft”—the giving of gifts in order to secure some sort of gain from the recipient.

As a result, I, a foreigner and private school teacher in an American-style school, am considered a “public official” in Korea. It’s an odd classification, one which effectively prohibits me from accepting a bottle of Scotch, a fountain pen, or even a cup of coffee from a student or parent who is currently, or may at some point be, my student. This would put me in a position in which I might be inclined to show favoritism to a student, giving them a grade they haven’t earned.

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Kim Young-Ran herself! Photo: Yonhap News/Korea Herald

Curiously, I may give my students Scotch (?), fountain pens, and coffee, because they can’t pay me back in any shady way.

The law is an overcorrection aiming to fix a real problem. And here at Christmas time, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all the Scotch, fountain pens, and coffee that I’m not getting. All that generosity, nullified! Bah humbug!

The problem, of course, is that bribery strips the gift of its very status as a gift. When a gift is given with a wink, the gift disappears. The gift fails to reach the outer space of gratuity and is sucked back into the orbit of an economy where goods, services, and cash are exchanged within a transactional rationality.

Is there such thing as a pure gift?

But wait, you might say: is it even possible to give gifts that don’t collapse under the gravity of pure economics? When I give my kids presents at Christmas, isn’t it because they didn’t shout, cry, or pout, and thus, Santa Claus was contractually obligated to show up? When I buy my wife a bouquet of flowers, aren’t I really attempting to buy another few months of cooking and cleaning from a low-maintenance partner in home-economics?

Jean-Luc Marion comes along to rescue us from our deconstruction of gifts. Along the way, he shows us some ways we can give in purity. A philosopher saves Christmas!

How do you give a real gift, then?

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Photo: LE BRAS

1. Eliminate the giver!

Marion says that when an inheritance is given, the giver has been stolen away by death, and cannot be thanked or reciprocated. I had never heard of my Icelandic uncle Skuli from North Dakota until he died and left me some cash. So I never felt “indebted” to him for the Martin D-28 dreadnaught acoustic guitar I bought with his money. I was able to simply enjoy it.

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Thanks, Uncle Skuli! (Me out in front of King’s Cross Church in Charlotte, NC, 2012, with my Martin D-28, now almost 20 years old.)

But he wasn’t able to enjoy me enjoying it, except proleptically. I wouldn’t suggest giving all your Christmas gifts at once, when you die, simply in order to eliminate the possibility of the gift falling back into the realm of quid pro quo.

But isn’t Santa Claus a way of eliminating the giver? Sure, Santa can be conscripted as an all-seeing eye crossing naughty kids off his list. But one argument for keeping Santa around is that he gives parents a chance to watch their kids open and enjoy Christmas presents without their kids feeling any shred of indebtedness to them. The parents (spoiler alert!) are the real gift-givers, and they’ve been hidden by the person of Saint Nick. And Saint Nick is long gone.

Grown-ups can receive gifts from Santa, too. Why not give a completely anonymous gift, ascribed to Santa, this Christmas?

2. Eliminate the recipient!

This is not as sinister as it sounds. “Sorry, son. I could gift you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Marion has in mind here a humanitarian gift. The giver remains, but the recipient is unknown to us. We can give a pure gift that can never re-enter the transactional economy if we don’t even know whether it is helping pay a child’s tuition in Timbuktu or keeping the lights on at a Boys and Girls Club in Kalamazoo.

But here’s an idea: Give a big fat Christmas present to your local church! These are the leaders you know and trust. These are the ministries with which you are most intimately familiar. These are the anonymous recipients who, though they cannot repay you, live among you.

I frequently tell people that giving to their local church takes faith and releases them from control. If choose the charity which, or the individual who, will be the recipient of my gift, then I give and I withhold according to my own private calculus of who is worthy, and of how much help. In contrast, if I give to my church, I abandon my gift completely to the wisdom of my church’s leadership—people who I know and whom I have elected to be ministers of mercy and stewards of modest kingdom resources here in my own community. And best of all, I’m not in control. This is a way of technically eliminating the recipient, but more fundamentally eliminating me—at least the me who would otherwise be picking, choosing, and managing the “gift”.

3. Give to an enemy!

Marion says that “my enemy appears as my gift’s best friend.” Weird. How so?

He says that when I give a gift to an enemy, they (1) will not give me a gift in return, they (2) will resent me all the more, and they (3) would rather kill me before they acknowledge that I’ve put them in my debt.

Voilá! The gift is purely given, and I can’t and won’t be compensated for it.

To kill an enemy with kindness, to heap burning coals upon their head—it seems like a weird way to channel one’s resources at Christmas. But the guy who Christmas is named after says to do it, so …

4. Eliminate the gift!

Finally, Marion describes a man who gives a woman an expensive piece of jewelry. There are two possible things going on in such an instance.

Either the man is giving the jewelry in place of time, love, and tenderness, or the man is not really giving jewelry at all, but is instead giving himself. He is either saying “I love you,” but lying; or he is saying nothing, but saying everything. The necklace or bracelet is where the gift begins and ends, or it’s simply a stand-in that signifies the un-monetizable gift of self, the provision of one’s soul.

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Michael Bolton, who is hiding in the margins of this post, and can be found if you look closely. (Photo: buzzfeed.)

It gets cooler. Marion says that the placeholder gift can be given all at once. But when I give myself with the gift, “I can only give symbolically, since it will require the entire duration of my lifetime to truly accomplish it.”

Spare the gift, spoil the child

If we lavish our kids with stuff, there is always the chance that our kids will receive it not as grace, but as karma. They could develop a karma disposition to the world. The mountain of gifts we give them would then disappear by its perversion; they would rot by ceasing to be gifts at all.

But if we can figure out a way to give our kids ourselves in, with, and under their Christmas presents, they have a chance of experiencing real gratuity, real grace. The mountain of gifts will still disappear. They’ll be wasted—symbolically, sure, but also they’ll literally end up in a landfill somewhere. But their disappearance will allow the only gift that really matters to emerge: the gift of self. Isn’t this the whole idea of love, anyway?

Marion says we cannot live without love, or at least we cannot live without the hope that we will some day be genuinely loved. That is to say, we can live without a pile of toys or a box full of jewelry. But we can’t live without someone giving themselves to us in complete generous abandon—another claim that makes us recall the historical origins of Christmas.

This Christmas has me thinking of how I can give myself via the placeholder of a few gifts. But it also has me thinking of how a Christmas present, to be a real gift, requires me to be present to those I love all year long — long after the “gifts” have been discarded.

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