9. Simplifying Gifts

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Since it’s just after the holiday season, I thought it would be great to talk about gifts in simplifying. Specifically, have you ever said, “I don’t even like this thing, but it was a gift from a dear friend”? As a professional organizer, I have heard this often.

Let’s be very clear about what’s happening. There are two sets of feelings that sometimes get confused. First, there’s the way you feel about the gift itself. Second, there’s the way that you feel about your friend, the person who gave you the gift. Let’s distinguish between these two feelings so that we can find a way to honor them both.

Let’s first take an objective look at just the gift itself, at just this particular item. Does it support what’s important in your life? Is it something that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful? If you were in a store today and you saw it on the shelf, would you be attracted enough to this item that you would be willing to pay full retail price to buy it and take it home? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then by all means, keep it. This item serves multiple purposes. Not only is it a reminder of the friendship you share, but it’s also worthwhile in its own right.

However, if the answer to those questions is “no,” then you don’t value the gift itself very much. Therefore the only reason to keep it is as a way of remembering your friend, and the fact that they got you this gift. But think about what it is you are remembering. You’re remembering that they got you a gift you don’t like. This sounds to me like a negative association. If your goal is to honor your friendship and appreciate your dear friend, this may not be the best way to do it. How is keeping something you don’t like honoring to them? I’m sure you could find ways to honor your friends in ways that reflect more positively on them and what they mean to you.

Right now, take a moment to think about someone in your life whom you love. What is it you remember about them? What thoughts bring a smile to your face?

Mostly, when people have fond memories of their friends, those memories are about experiences they’ve had together, laughter they’ve shared, or intimate communication they’ve had. They remember when they supported their friend in a time of need, or when their friend supported them. When you think of a list of the five most treasured memories of your best friend, I would be surprised if the fact that they bought you a particular item even falls in that list at all.

Because we tend to not communicate very intimately in this culture, we often show our love for each other by giving gifts. As the recipient, we want to receive the love and the gesture, but we don’t want to harm ourselves by accumulating stuff that’s not important to us.

I have a friend named Bob who, due to health reasons, is unable to eat much sugar. Once, when I was at an event with him, I offered him some cookies. He replied, “I consider an offering of food to be an act of love. I’ll take the love, but I can’t eat the cookies.” We’ve all heard the saying “it’s the thought that counts,” and Bob has a really tactful way of honoring the thought, without having to compromise himself by consuming stuff that’s not good for him. Receive the love, but don’t eat the cookies. Receive the love, but don’t take up valuable space to store an object you don’t like or will never use. Receive the love, but donate the purple and yellow polka dot shirt.

I believe that people, in general, have the intention to give gifts that the receiver will appreciate. Even with the best of intentions, however, it sometimes happens that a gift we receive, doesn’t work for us. This doesn’t mean that the gift-giver was not being thoughtful. Possibly circumstances in my life have changed in a way that they couldn’t have known about. Maybe I would’ve appreciated it a year ago, but don’t today. Maybe I’ve redecorated, so the gift no longer matches the decor. Maybe I’m no longer pursuing the hobby associated with that gift. Maybe my priorities have shifted, and I’m focusing on different things that are important in my life.

If I give a gift to someone that they don’t appreciate, I personally would want to know about it. In this way I get to know that person better, and in the future can choose gifts more appropriate for them. And I know this is a radical concept, but if someone gets me a gift that I don’t like or can’t use, I will tell them. This may seem impolite to some people, but consider the alternative. Pretending to be pleased when I receive it, saving an item I don’t like, and perhaps even retrieving it from storage and displaying it every time they visit, seems like a lot of energy to invest in something that is inherently dishonest.

There’s a bigger principle involved here, that applies not only to organizing, but to life in general. The bigger question is “how authentic do you want to be with people?” Personally, I value having people in my life who are willing to be completely honest with me, even in those times when they’re telling me something they think I don’t want to hear. I also value having people in my life who want me to be honest with them even if I am saying something I think they don’t want to hear. Even though being honest may be a bit uncomfortable at times, it invariably results in deeper, more authentic connection, greater intimacy, a closer friendship, and the deeper knowing of both myself and the other person.

Now I have a bonus suggestion. Let’s come back to the situation I describe at the top of this podcast. You’ve received a gift you don’t like. You found a way to receive the love and honor the gesture, and you’ve considered telling the person that this gift doesn’t work for you and why, but you’re still not quite comfortable letting it go altogether. Why not take a picture of it? You can store the picture in a photo album or with other memorabilia, or in digital format on your computer or on a CD. This way you still have a representation of the gift without having to store and maintain the object itself.

I hope the ideas in this podcast will help you make decisions about simplifying that serve yourself as well as honor your relationship with the gift-giver. May you be open to seeing and receiving the true gifts, the eternal gifts, of this, the holiday of giving.

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