The Gift: An essay
We want to be recognised for who we are. The problem is: Who are we? A gift is a beautiful way of answering that question. Perhaps, we are relations before being anything else, before being individuals.
A gift manifests the relation between two people.
Gift wrapping wraps us together, as one who gives and one who receives. I find it hard to receive presents. Some presents come with an extra layer of wrapping: now you are what this present has made you. I become what the gift conveys, I become the recipient of this particular present.
We want to be seen, we want to be acknowledged, but only rarely — perhaps when we unwrap something truly unexpected and beautiful, something we really did not foresee — do we feel seen as who we truly are. Or who we think we are. This is the magic of gifts. The gift can both delight and define. I pick it up and it picks me out. And the gift-giver smiles: this is how you are, this is how we are connected. Am I afraid to discover who I am? And not least, to be burdened with a debt of gratitude? To owe what I now own? Most of all, I hope that the gift contains a recognition that the two of us — you and I — are wrapped together in a beautiful way. A right way. A light way. I hope that we can co-exist in the present’s moment. Gifts affect us in all sorts of ways, and the right gift weaves an ethereal ribbon through time. It folds time tight, so that we feel its passage. That is why gifts come to us covered. “Oh, what can it be?” we think, as we struggle with ribbon and wrapping. It’s not polite to tear off the wrapping. How is one supposed to go about it? What is the proper unwrapping technique? No one knows, so we all do it our own way. Time slows as we open the present, until almost standing still. We feel time interweaving with the gift — the present and the present. It is as if time itself has been bound.
In Danish, the word “gift” means poison. Will this gift be poisonous? Or is it just time that wraps around me, like a piece of soft and life-giving cloth? The gift makes time textile. The French philosopher Marcel Mauss points out that gifts are also an exercise of power, a commercial relation of exchange, which obligates the receiver to repay the giver with a new present. Now you owe me. An example of the power play implicit in the present is the Native American concept of potlatch — a war with gifts. In this war, the goal is to expose oneself the most, to be as vulnerable as possible. The war is played out in special potlatch houses, where one showers the enemy with presents, in the form of costly dresses and precious weapons. Those who dare to give most will go home victorious.
Oh, to give. I give a lot of presents. I know that it’s a survival strategy — as long as I’m giving, everything will be alright. But inside me, I dream that the gift will transform itself into the essential gift, that the soft core of the present will become visible and real and tangible: the gift as a recognition of the relation between two people. Two people who want to mutually acknowledge that the other exists. That is what we are grateful for, when we thank each other for the gifts. Present and present: thank you for sharing this moment with me. Thank you for seeing me as another human being. To never take that recognition for granted, but to grant it to others — thank you. We become gifted. I thank you for being you, for being us, for everything that the present represents.
To: To be. / From: You came. / Saying: We are here, now. / Thanking us for being us.
Essay by Morten Søndergaard, Photography by Sigurd Grünberger