It may be “better” to give than to receive, but for some of us, it’s also easier. To give is to retain some measure of control, even power, in the dynamic; one who gives does not need to worry about expressing enthusiasm or responding in kind or anything other than sitting back and accepting accolades. When you receive, you want to express pleasure—you want to give them that—and this is exhausting. Gracious gift receiving is very hard, and I’m not just talking about things you don’t want.
As we know, in the old days a courting gentleman could properly present a young lady with only a few impersonal things: candy, flowers, an innocuous book. How much easier for everyone involved! When the gifts were so circumscribed, surely the accepting was, too! And I think a book remains a wonderful gift in part for this reason; once it has been given, the reading of the book is an active process. It has become yours; when you share an opinion, it is as equals.
I love giving people presents, choosing the wrappings, even the mailing. I know as well as anyone the pleasures of stumbling upon something that makes you think of a friend. And yet, not long ago a thoughtful gift arrived in the mail. My initial reaction was guilt, followed by anxiety; why was a friend wasting time and money on me? Could she afford it? And this, mind you, was in the privacy of my own bedroom.
You have to feel good about yourself to accept a gift. You must feel worthy of it. It must seem to you not terrible, but natural that someone has considered your thoughts and feelings and tastes, and spent time choosing and wrapping, but natural. You are loved.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.