The Only Gift Is a Portion of Thyself – Emerson

It’s that time of year again.  In addition to a Bar Mitvah and graduations, we have birthdays and anniversaries.  I received a couple invitations from ECHOage last year.  Here’s their homepage mission:  “ECHOage is an online birthday party service where kids get the birthday gifts they want AND guests donate to charities of their choice.”  (ECHOage link)

Has your child been dreaming about getting an iPod, a bike, a puppy? With an ECHOage birthday party, your child will be one step closer to getting it.

Half of the money contributed by your guests is sent to your child to buy any gifts they choose. ECHOage will send half of the money contributed by your guests to the charity.

I wasn’t sure how to feel.  It was troubling and offensive, but after checking the site I could understand why a parent might use this.  I’m not sure I like this trend however.

The last wedding we attended, the couple had their own website.  Each had a profile and the registry allowed guests to contribute to the China pattern or the honeymoon vacation, details available at a click.  Wedding gift values vary today from $50 for a friend and $100 to $200 for close friends and family.  (TheKnot site)  And graduates are in debt or going in debt, at least the parents are.  So the top gift is cash: family giving $50 for High School and $100 for college.  (eHow link )   In my town people spend about $20 – $25 for a child’s birthday.  The ladies like to take each other out for lunch.

Yet it seems we’re missing something.  In a material world consumed with consuming, each holiday and event translates to money and gifts, a monotonous duty.  It’s so far gone with children, they expect gifts even when they’re not the birthday child, you know, the goodie bags or toys the kids get for going to the other kid’s party.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay on gifts which has guidelines worth sharing.

Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit. But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.

 “The only gift is a portion of thyself.”   This is the essence of the passage.   It’s worth reading the whole essay because it’s just four pages and discusses gifts always appropriate like flowers or fruit and larger concerns about gratitude and the onerous feeling of debt involved with gift-giving.  (Essay in full)

I agree with Emerson, so give of yourself! It’s too bad I wasn’t friends with Vincent Van Gogh because imagine what treasures he might give. HA! But it’s hard to be better off than I am now since I’ve enjoyed the loveliest presents.  And the invitations I’ve received have forced me to deal with my hang ups.  Here are a couple questions I’ve answered.

What are my favorite gifts?

For my birthday, a friend sent gloves she knit for me wrapped in a silk scarf. Over the holidays several friends made me tasty confections and cookies.  Another wrote a long note.  I had written her a couple times but was ecstatic to receive one in return!  That’s the point after all.

As a parent, a favorite is my children’s artwork and the silly and lovely and HONEST things they write.  My birthday collage says it best.

  

As this child’s mom, I may be odd and even a bit fruity, but inside there’s a star!

Back to Emerson.  So, what does it mean to give of myself? In my case that means to write.

The last year or so, I decided to write letters for birthdays and though Emerson might approve, that’s not what’s important. I love writing letters and I love getting letters as much. Here is something I can give because it is a “portion of myself.”

It takes time, but I encourage you to write a letter.  You soon realize, to say something meaningful, you must think over what you believe.  But, you must think about that person as well: what he or she means to you, what you want to tell them beyond a text message about where to meet and when.

You learn that Sir Francis Bacon had it right when he said:  “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Today’s correspondence seems limited to 140 character exchanges, Instagrams, Snapchat, twitter and Facebook posts.  The universe of ideas, thoughtful reflection, and written communication  has been distilled into sound bites, catch phrases, headlines, hooks, and clinchers. It’s all good and the multimedia world of words is wonderful and rich and multi-textured.

Yet, bite sized exchanges should not replace the thoughtful and reflective and yes, wordier, letter.

So how’s it going with my ‘gifts’ you ask?  The last three birthday letters:  a friend said it made her cry (in a good way); another posted a photo of my letter on Facebook, happy to receive a long missive; and the most recent said she’d treasure it.

The best part for me is thinking how it might make a friend feel, what they might learn, as well as what I learned writing to them:  I consider what is special about the recipient and why I value our relationship.

I’m not sure a birthday needs to be about getting the ultimate gift, or that we need or should give to charity. Yet when the gift supersedes the giver, there’s a problem, and maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the relationship.

Emerson finished his essay with this: “I like to see that we cannot be bought and sold…..  But love them, and they feel you and delight in you all the time.”

May 8, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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