Comassion in Action

Gratitude and the Spirit of Giving

prayer bundles (gifts) Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

I know a woman who’s a traditionalist. She used to give her grandchildren gifts. If she didn’t get a written thank-you note, she gave less of a gift the next year. If she still didn’t get a thank-you note, she stopped giving. She tells me how she’s teaching the children the value of courtesy, gratitude, and manners. As I hear her story, it’s obvious that her grandchildren tell her “thank you,” but she doesn’t think that counts. She needs a “real” thank-you.

I think about when my children were little, and I was a divorced mother of three, working full-time. Later, I was a married mother of four, working full-time, going to law school full-time, and trying to keep my life on track. I tried to get the written thank you notes out to my children’s grandparents and failed miserably. Really? It was all I could do to get the laundry done on top of everything else. When we moved to our current home over ten years ago, I found, buried on my desk, a bunch of thank-you cards which the children had written, but I hadn’t been focused enough to address and mail. I was embarrassed, and hoped that the grandparents understood.

Offerings at Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

In some circles, gratitude is a big deal these days.  People have gratitude journals and there’s a lot of talk out there about “having an attitude of gratitude.” I’m often reminded by others how important it is to be thankful for all I have. I’m all for it.

But when I think about the crotchety grandmother in my circle of friends, I see a barter. She’s a person who gives for a reason. She doesn’t do it for the joy of giving; she does it for the feeling of gratitude she gets from the recipient. Is that really giving?  When we give to people we love, isn’t it usually for the joy of knowing how much they will cherish the gift? When we give to a charity, isn’t it for the feeling we get, knowing we helped? Isn’t this the fun of anonymous giving? It feels good to give, when there’s no thanks in return. We do it because we enjoy giving, not because of the gratitude we anticipate in return.

Ti plant, gracing tombstone; Chinese Cemetery, Oahu, Hawaii

I knew a child who was distressed at Christmas, because she wanted a certain gift from someone and wondered how much she would have to give to them to get the gift she wanted in return. I wondered how she thought this magic gift-match-up was supposed to be known by the gift exchange recipient.  As it turns out, it wasn’t understood, and they’ve both been bitter for years about the weird gift-giving energy between them.

These are often the people who leave the price tags on their gifts that don’t reflect the sale price paid, hoping to get full-priced gratitude at a bargain. Don’t we all know someone like that? These are usually people who give because they feel they must, under some set of social rules. Graduation, wedding, birthday, and Christmas gifts are all just a time-delayed gift exchange. Whether you’re giving a gift in order to receive written thanks or whether you are flat-out bartering gifts with another person, this isn’t giving. It’s an exchange.

Birthday cake

In the blogging world, we’ve been passing around “award nominations.” They are polite ways of letting others know about who we are and showing others our favorite blogs. It’s done with good intentions, and it can be pretty constructive, encouraging newbies. I recently “nominated” some of the blogs that I think are pretty good. Some of those blog writers wrote back to thank me and explain the numerous reasons why they couldn’t participate. No problem; this is supposed to be fun. I’ve found some of my favorite blogs through their nominations by blogs I enjoy. I don’t mind if they don’t participate. If given the chance, I might still nominate them in the future. Why? Because they’re good blogs that I’d like to share with my friends. I don’t expect anything in return, and they shouldn’t feel guilty about not doing more.  This is the way it is with gift-giving in general. I do it because I want to make someone happy or fulfill their want or need, not because it’s expected or because someone might think less of me if I don’t.

Special-occasion cake

28 replies »

  1. Interesting post. There is a balance. I have no qualms with emailing or calling if I fear that someone didn’t get my gift but I don’t need eternal gratitude either. Gifts are more fun to give to children and young people because they often don’t have the means to get what they want. Sometimes a big hug will do the job as well as a formal card.

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  2. This is such an excellent post; you wrote my thoughts and feelings about gratitude. We have a family member who’s exactly like that crotchety grandmother you spoke of, but she goes even further – she expects a special call and thank you note for sending a simple card. She keeps track of when she sends the card so she knows the approximate date to expect a call, and if it doesn’t come…..watch out. It’s not something that can be brought up in normal conversation, it has to be a “special” call. She thinks thank you notes should be acknowledged with another return note. Where does that cycle end? A thank you for a thank you of a thank you?? It keeps everyone tense when a “gesture” is made, and frankly we’d all rather be left out of that crazy card-and-gift cycle.

    But then again, this woman lives by obligation – she obligates everyone to keep in touch with her through intimidation and threats, which tells me she fears being left out or forgotten, which further tells me she feels less than worthy of being remembered normally. It’s a shame, because I only want people remembering me who *want* to, not because they’re forced to. Such a hollow victory for her.

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    • Ahhhh, sounds like us. You really DO understand! Thank you for commenting. I was starting to think we were the only ones. I agree – send something because ou want me to be happy, not because you feel obligated. Thanks?

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  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I identify with all sides. As I type this reply, two recently unearthed sweet thank you notes from my daughter (circa age 6, 7 years ago, based on handwriting) to her godmother sit on my desk. That was in my working full-time single mother stage, during which time I neglected so many courtesies it’s painful to recall. I have nieces and nephews to whom I’ve given gifts faithfully and never received a word, verbally or written, from parents or children. After a decade I realized that they receive so much that they probably don’t like my silly little gifts so I stopped. And then there are precious funny little notes from others that are truly a delight. I find myself agreeing with your commenter who indicated a thank you note isn’t so much a quid pro quo gratitude exchange as it is an information exchange that nourishes the relationship.

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    • You have a wonderful sense of perspective here, and I think things are often as you say. I also believe that some families are so dysfunctional that any excuse not to give a gift will do. My husband has so many nieces and nephews that I can’t keep track, and I haven’t met many of them. That changes things too. Thank you for your comment.

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  4. Hmm, I have mixed feelings. While I don’t disagree that giving should just be about giving and not what comes back, when I was a child good manners had value and part of good manners was that you sent a written thank you note not only for gifts but for parties and any occasion to which you were invited, etc. I realize that people are incredibly busy now but the complete lack of good manners these days weighs me down sometimes. I’d like to think that rather than bartering, grandma is trying to teach her grandchildren to be polite according to the standard she was taught. And I really miss people being polite.

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    • Maybe I’m in the wrong on this one. Do you send a thank you note for everything you’re invited to and everything you receive now? Do you not ever handle it by phone or email?

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      • No, I’m not so old fashioned that I don’t get that it’s not the norm to hand write notes, but I do generally send an e-mail thank you (which I do consider written),, often with an e-card. None of the young people I know even bother with that. I’m just saying that, assuming a current grandma is my age or older, I think she comes from a time when people did write notes and have better manners and I can see it as possible that she’s trying to teach her grandchildren manners as she learned them. Also possible she gives to get, since I don’t know her…

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        • OK. That makes sense. Our family situation with both sets of grandparents isn’t what most families, experience, too. We live a very long distance from both sets, and they don’t see their grandchildren often. I know that when we send gifts to my husband’s grandchildren, and they never tell us how they feel, we’re disappointed that we didn’t get feedback. But we still send them gifts, because, well, they’re children. This is one way we can show them we care.

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  5. One thing to consider when not receiving a thank you for a gift is this: Did the recipient receive the gift? Did they like my choice of a gift? Was it something they wanted or they could use? We don’t have the answers to these questions without a note of some kind.

    When I give to my grandchildren and don’t receive a thank you, I really do not know whether they received my gift or if it is something they are glad to have. Did my gift even matter to them or did they look at it and put it away somewhere because didn’t really like it or want it. I believe a note of acknowledgement goes a long way towards teaching courtesy and letting the giver know how the gift was received. For me, it’s not that I need a thank you as much as I need to know the gift was appreciated.

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    • Yes, acknowledging a gift is absolutely appropriate, although I think it can be verbal or email. In these cases, the giver knows that the gift was received. Thank you for providing an alternative point of view, that written notes are appropriate. Some gifts don’t get used because they are so off-the-mark. How do you tell someone that they don’t know their kids/grandkids/relatives well enough to have given them something they would like or use? It’s a tough call. In the end, my post is really about the spirit of giving. I need to give because I want to, from my heart, not because of the appreciation I hope to receive. I suspect you’re in pretty good company, believing that the thank you note is a symbol of appreciation that can’t be duplicated. Thanks for responding.

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  6. Some very interesting thoughts and ideas here… I enjoyed reading it 🙂

    I always used to say that there’s no such thing as altruism… but I’ve had to revise my thinking slightly. There are some who give with no *expectation* of anything in return – folks who may even refuse something in return. That’s altruism to me. For example, I won’t loan money unless I’m fully prepared to write it off.

    But whenever we act altruisitcally, we always – or we should – get something in return. We should always get a sense of fulfillment and self worth from that selfless act of giving. I know people who give for that reason – I used to be one – and I say there’s nothing wrong in that, as long as you’re not discriminating against someone who’s asking for help simply because you don’t want to feel good about helping them.

    I hope that makes sense… it’s 1am and time for bed LOL

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    • I can’t deny that it feels good to help others, or to give to someone you know needs what you’re giving. Those kinds of things don’t bother me so much as those who give only for what they get in exchange. We say things differently, but I think our spirits are compatible on this. Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. I very much enjoyed this read. I have walked up that mountain in Wyoming for the express purpose of leaving a gift to Spirit in that sacred place. And I have nominated some bloggers for awards and received the very same ‘thanks, but no thanks response.’ You are right. This is supposed to be fun, and I agree: I have found some of my (now) favorite blogs through that very same method. Gratitude is about appreciation. I want to thank you for your unique point of view. I will be back.

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  8. Hmm…a very candid commentary on this topic.

    There is the opposite scenario, too.

    I knew a family that cared nothing about gratitude, whatsoever. Over the years, they ended up exchanging gift cards – and that’s all.

    Easy peasy.

    What was odd, is that their gift cards were “equal.” Meaning, they spend 25 dollars on one for their family member, and got a 25 dollar gift card – in return.

    They didn’t even flinch.

    None of my business, but it seemed weird to me 😉

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