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My nine-year old daughter is the best gift giver I know. At Christmas, each child in our family randomly draws one sibling to give a gift to. They’re all good at it and their gifts are often some of the most surprising and thoughtful gifts each of them receives over the holidays. The exception is our nine-year old. She cannot be limited to only one sibling. She makes gifts for everyone. Often, she gets carried away and makes multiple gifts for everyone.
My daughter has almost no money (she brags like Scrooge McDuck when she manages to acquire $20 before it melts away through candy purchases), so all her gifts are homemade. They take hours of time and effort. They require creativity and attentiveness to what the other person would like or need. More often than not, she’s right on target.
She inherits her gift-giving talent from her mother, who is also quite good at it and maintains a permanent super-secret stash of gifts, cards, and wrapping paper because she never knows when she might want to give a gift.
A clueless giver
I, on the other hand, am clueless in these things. The whole process of brainstorming a gift idea, finding it, and getting it all done in a timely manner is inscrutable to me. I may as well try to build a rocket to send myself to the moon, watch a television show after 9 p.m. without falling asleep, or solve a middle-school algebra problem. It isn’t happening.
Because gift-giving is my kryptonite, I usually delegate to my better half. (We really do complete each other.) Whenever I’m put in charge of the gift selection, I wait until the very last day and then head to the mall. I wander around, looking at the store displays in the windows, maybe stop and get a cinnamon roll, and walk endless circles through the building until I can’t see straight. Then, I go into the nearest store that sells lotions and perfumes. I buy a gift basket that seems nice, ideally already wrapped with a nice bow, and pay whatever it costs.
It’s barely a step up from straight up gifting cash, but out of what I can only describe as survival instinct, I somehow convince myself that this is the perfect choice. Otherwise, I’d still be trapped in the mall.
In my heart, though, I know I could’ve done better. I could have figured out a personal, creative, thoughtful gift. After decades of these demoralizing failures, I stand in awe of talented gift-givers like my daughter.
Languages of love
Some of you, in reading this far, may have anticipated where I’m going with all this. Gift-giving is a type of love language. Some people speak it, while others don’t. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that even though I’m not good at it, I need to keep putting in the effort because it’s clearly how some of the people who are close to me share love.
In my fumbling attempts, I try to keep in mind two things: (1) when my daughter hands me a gift, she’s telling me in her own way that she loves me, and (2) if I can manage to surprise her with a good gift in return, she will receive it as a sign of my love. This is why I don’t give up.
St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that everything is received, “according to the mode of the receiver.” Communication, in order to be effective, must make sense to whoever we’re communicating with. If I want to teach a 2nd grader in my First Communion class about the Sacraments, I use different words and examples than if I’m teaching a class of seminary students. If I want my daughter to be assured of my love, I should use the language that makes most sense to her, that seems most real. I want to use her love language.
Different languages for different people
If my child’s love language is physical touch, it goes a long way to hug her while I tell her I love her. If my dad’s love language is acts of service, then I know that the time he spent all afternoon helping me fix my car was him telling me he loves me.
My own love language is quality time. I desire a meaningful connection, face-to-face, over a cup of coffee. I want to discuss deep topics and hear what books you’re reading, what you’ve been writing, or simply hear about whatever is really important to you. In return, I want to turn you on to the amazing new Sigur Ros album I bought on vinyl. I want to pour you a glass of gin from a local distillery that I’m thrilled to have discovered. I want to go on a five-hour-long bike ride with you and talk about poetry and philosophy while my heart beats 125 times per minute.
When I finally figured out that I receive love in my own way, I began to realize that other people receive love in their own way. This motivates me to be mindful of using more of the love languages. Although all the ways of expressing love aren’t natural to me and I do forget, I strive to remember because I really do want the people in my life to know how I feel about them.
Learning new languages
Conversely, there have been times in the past I’ve indulged in self-pity. I thought no one valued me, that the people who ought to love me really weren’t expressing it. In fact, they were expressing it the whole time, it was just in their own manner of communicating. When I recognized that they were using their own form of love language, those acts of service, physical touch, and thoughtful gifts became much, much more valuable to me.
These days, in addition to making time for quality time with friends and family, I write a lot more thank you notes, try to use more intentional words of affirmation, give my children hugs, and yes, I am determined to finally, someday, figure out the grand mystery of gift-giving.