It has taken me months to do it, but I have finally finished sending out thank yous to the many many people who reached out to me and to my family when Abraham died. Writing so many thank yous to so many people has gotten me thinking, because there were some folks whom I did not thank; some folks whom I could not bring myself to thank.
I think one of the earliest lessons we are taught, on our journey to becoming civilized, is to express gratitude for gifts for which we don’t feel grateful: grandma’s Christmas gift of socks; Uncle Charlie’s birthday gift of a book we wouldn’t read in a million years; Aunt Rose’s gift of a toy that’s more appropriate for our brother who is three years younger. It comes as a shock to a kid, I think, to learn that it isn’t automatically phony to be grateful when we don’t feel that gratitude.
We are soon taught that it is the thought that counts, that a gift is always a good thing and not ever to be frowned upon. And thus we are taught graciousness.
When I was in my twenties, my grandmother, a long time widow than in her seventies, and supported only by social security, still made sure to send me a birthday card every year. I found that thoughtful. But she always made sure to enclose two dollars. That two dollars added little to my income, even forty years ago. But I knew that it subtracted a lot from my grandmother’s. I thought she was foolish to do it: the cost to her outweighed the benefit to me.
But when I turned twenty six, I had the opportunity to get into a special government mortgage program that would allow me to buy this house I am still in. It required me to go on a strict – very strict – budget for over a year where every single penny literally mattered. I had a hard time with it, but I was determined to take advantage of this opportunity, so I followed the budget religiously. And then my birthday came.
I don’t know that I have ever been so grateful as I was that birthday to open that card from my grandmother and find the usual two dollars. It was totally unbudgeted money and I could do whatever I wanted to do with it. I suppose it would be the equivalent of about $15 today. It was a wonderful gift.
Yet, it was the same gift that she always sent. Thankfully, I had changed and finally created the circumstances within which that money was experienced as it should have been: as a serious gift. The objective value of a gift, I learned, depended on the receiver, not the giver. So I get it. I do get it: gifts are to be appreciated. Recipients are to thank givers.
Years later, I read a remarkable book by M. Scott Peck named “People of The Lie.” Peck – as I remember it – told a story about two teenaged brothers who each wanted to own a gun – hunting rifles, I think. The older brother finally got one. But he later used it to commit suicide with. His parents took that gun, wrapped it up, and gave it to the younger boy for a gift that following Christmas.
Well, that made sense: the boy had wanted a gun; the family now had an extra gun; so why not give it to their son? Well reasoned, or not, I was horrified – which was Peck’s intention. While the objective value of a gift might well depend on the receiver, there also is always a context that must be looked at in doing that evaluation of the gift.
For instance, if I have two children, one by birth and one by adoption, it is not unheard of for grandparents to treat the birth grandchild as “real” and the adopted one as “less.” We in the adoption world see it too often. And if the grandparent were to buy a wonderful birthday gift for the birth grandchild, but either ignore, or buy a much less valuable gift for the adopted one’s birthday, the value of the gifts can only, and must, be measured by that context. It’s not that one gift is acceptable and the other is not: both are unacceptable. For a parent to allow the grandparent to do such would make the parent complicit in the grandparent’s very painful and disrespectful nonsense.
In both that scenario and in Peck’s story, gifts, no matter how they may look to outsiders – and they might look very good to outsiders, as they are gifts after all – can be used as weapons. In those circumstances, although it goes against years of “gift” socialization within us, such gifts not only should not be thanked for, but such gifts need to be rejected out of hand and definitively. It is not a particular gift, or even any gift, that one is demanding, when one does such, although it can be made to look that way. It is respect that one must demand, especially for one’s kids. A gift, no matter how well-intentioned, given in a context where respect is missing, is beyond hollow. It is always perverse.
The gifts then, no matter the sincerity of the giver, are toxic. And people we love, including ourselves, must be protected from toxicity – no matter how it appears to others. The parents in Peck’s story – whether aware of it or not –are conveying to their son the message that he too should shoot himself. The grandmother of the two grandchildren – whether aware of it or not – is hurting both children by treating them so differently – saying, in effect, that one is better or more valuable, than the other. It is the parent’s job to say no. Always to say no. No matter the consequences, with her mother, or any other relative in the family. But to do that is scary and enormously difficult.
Yet, if we don’t stand up for our kids. than what’s the point of being parents? And isn’t being-stood-up-for the very thing that teaches us our value? And isn’t that the core thing that parentless kids are missing?
Some thoughts……………as I prepare to pack Abraham’s funeral stuff into a box which will go into the closet with the boxes from the funerals of his – unbelievable – three brothers.