Giving the right gift is not always the easy option, but it is always worth it.
Last May I faced a relational dilemma. I had spent the past nine months in a residential fellowship program living with nine other people. Each had become one of my dearest friends. As we entered our last week together, I wrote a poem in honor of our friendship and the journey we had shared. I had read it to all of them the same day I wrote it, and they all wanted a copy to take with them.
I had to decide whether I would write out an individual copy for each one of them or print them out. At first thought the decision seemed obvious. Get some nice paper, type the poem up in an elegant font, and run off ten copies. Easy. There was a lot to do the last week before everyone moved out. I could give each of my friends a nice, clean, frame-ready poem. My ego swelled a little. What a great farewell gift.
Something about that felt like a cop-out, though, and in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling. I decided to make a handwritten copy of my poem for each of them. It took all of three lines for the work to become painful and tedious. The first copy required some adjustments. I’d started writing too large to fit everything on a single page, and my font grew smaller and smaller as the poem should have been building toward happy-sad tears. On the next try I got the ratio about right. It took around fifteen to twenty minutes to write out each copy, depending on how much my hand cramped up. I could only do one before needing to take a break. But I pressed on, exhausting my new fountain pen through a scrawl that more than one person has described as “boyish”.
The week got more exhausting as it went on. The last night I downed a cup of coffee at 11:40pm and powered through the last two copies. The next morning I would be too weary to cry during our goodbyes in the little chapel next to our house. But each of my friends had a handwritten copy of my poem.
And it was worth it; a thousand times over it was worth it. The joy I saw as I handed them out, the way their eyes lit up, well, it’s the kind of thing a writer lives for. If I had to redo that week, I’d write them out again.
What really has value?
As a negative point of contrast, there’s a tragic, sickening scene from the film The Fundamentals of Caring in which Trevor, a disabled teen, confronts his long-lost father, a man who abandoned his family when Trevor was born. Trevor’s father has little to say to him, but in a pathetic attempt to make amends he grabs a few hundred dollars from of his wallet and offers it to Trevor. His son is crushed, and rightfully so. When I first watched the scene, I wanted to punch him in the face.
Why do we revile the absent father who throws money at his children? It’s because the money doesn’t have value. Not real value, at least. Nothing involving the human heart and soul.
Why do we pay such a premium for handcrafted products? Is that bar of soap, or those leather boots, or those wooden serving spoons really any better than the ones stamped out in a factory? Technically and functionally no. But in actuality yes—a thousand times yes—because they came at personal cost to someone. Somewhere out there, a human being had to pour his or her physical exertion and attention into a creative act.
Modernity has given us an abundance of material wealth, but little value—and equally little happiness. We toss out clothes, appliances, furniture, and even art (at least mechanically-produced copies of art) on a whim. The stuff we retain we barely know what to do with. It hardly costs us a thing. Purchasing a new car or TV is easy and frictionless. But being a good friend and neighbor—like in the Good Samaritan way? That comes at a price, with difficulty; it is fraught with resistance on all sides.
As far as gifts and possessions are concerned, value doesn’t stem from quantity or utility. What matters is the memories we have intertwined with them, the love that others have imbued them with, the heartfelt bearing they have on us as relational beings. A machine could have printed or written out my poem dozens of times over in a much more consistent and elegant script in a fraction of the time, but it wouldn’t have meant as much to my friends. Trevor’s dad could have offered him a million bucks instead of a couple hundred, but it wouldn’t have made him feel one iota better.