Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On the Nature of Gifts and Help

Being helped so much by so many has led me to thinking about the idea of help and of gifts and Derrida's idea that gifts are impossible in that, in part and very briefly (he wrote a whole book on this), once we give to someone it sets up a debt, which is poisonous as it becomes just an economic exchange. Even if the gift is abandoned, if it's essentially garbage we're getting - something the giver wanted to toss - then the gift has no actual value, and they're giving us nothing. So, either it has value and then it creates a sense of indebtedness - try as we might to avoid that scenario, OR it has no value (garbage) and then it isn't valued as a gift. To give to someone in a way that's heartfelt requires a loss of something to the other. A sacrifice. And then there's a little sacrifice back to even it out and sully the relationship with a subtle tracking system of who gave what, when, and for how much.

If it's all anonymous, then that doesn't work either. Part of the reason we give gifts, as can be seen by how we try to keep economics out of it all, is to create an emotional bond between the giver and receiver. Whether it's anonymous or all tit-for-tat, or we later google for the price, then it ruins the spirit of giving.

I used to think about all this when my kids were younger and they would make lists for Christmas, and I felt like I was out shopping for groceries. It doesn't feel good to give something expected, or to feel like you have a duty to give back in kind, or to not give back in kind avoiding the call to track. It's really tricky! As it slips closer to a demand, then it's clearly a payment of affection instead of a gift. That can be a very subtle line to cross.

I'm thinking about it now because I feel horribly indebted to people who have helped so much.

I wonder if giving the gift of time when someone needs help is any different. The fact that time is given might change the scenario because it can be an automatic exchange of time for the pleasure of my company. But it is almost immediately sullied by an attempt to be entertaining so as to clearly reciprocate. I tried to take a primary caregiver to lunch today, but the place was closed, and now it really feels like I'm indebted to her. I almost paid the invisible debt, but failed. That nugget will sit in the back of my head until it's been cleared.

It's not much different from the exchange between a friend and me after I accidentally knocked a picture frame off her wall. I called for the dimensions the next day so I could replace it, but she preferred I buy her beers next time we're out. But it's been a while, and that debt is still in my mind, waiting to be erased from the account books with payment rendered.

My dad used to tell me to let people see what you struggle with and let them help you. It's our job here to find ways to let others shine. Helping others raises the helper's value to themselves and others, so it's an act of kindness to let people do things for you; they'll feel better after the exchange. But it still doesn't relieve the feeling of indebtedness on the part of the receiver, unless, perhaps, the help wasn't useful. If we're helped in such a way that it's disastrous to us, then we feel no need to reciprocate even though people might still think you're a douche if you just say thanks and do nothing else. It's understandable why some people hate to be helped.

I have a friend who always picks up the tab when we're out. I've even snuck a word with the waitress, but somehow he undercuts me. So now I'm significantly indebted to him, and he makes it impossible to reciprocate. But it's now to a point that I might stop hanging out with him. The pain of that inconspicuous bill ever growing is perilously close to outweighing the pleasure of our time. I have a hard time heeding my dad's advice.

But that feeling of duty to reciprocate is not such a bad thing. We want to keep economics out of our relationships, but it's necessary to have feelings of indebtedness or else we might just suck kind people dry. Some are already used up by narcissists happy to take them for all they have. This subtle, covert economic tracking is useful to keep kindnesses in balance. It's not necessarily poisonous. It doesn't make gifts any more possible perhaps, but we can give and receive anyway. It only works to ignore that payback urge if we're all pretty equally driven to give to one another, which almost never happens.  People's desire or ability to give is far too variable. I have very limited acceptable ways to give to others much as I'd like to offer a show of affection or thanks. I suck at it. I can write them an essay or build them a deck; I fail epically at shopping and cooking.

In comparing gifts and help, it's hard to find much that differs. They both might be one way to prove love or affection with the significance of the gift signalling the extent of affection. As a symbol of caring, it can be wildly inaccurate, which is a problem. We can care tons but give little, or care little, but want to present the appearance of caring for an ulterior motive - to be perceived as caring or as tightly bonded or as a martyr ever suffering for others. This is the real commodification of affection that should raise concerns.

Gifts and helping both might prove our value to others (to the receiver, bystanders, or ourselves). For some, the favoured payback is to tell others about the wonderful thing they did. We give out of duty based on the occasion or affliction, and the significance of either tells us how much we have to do: Christmas warrants more than Easter, and surgery warrants more than a cold. Last night my youngest was beside herself in tears because she wants to take care of me but she's been really sick, so I've been taking care of her. It's killing her! She wants to show how much she cares and to underscore how close we are, but she's incapacitated. I tried to assure her that her company in front of movies is the best thing ever!

We give and help for the joy of giving. But what is that joy if not the thrill of being showered with gratitude (even if it's our own private self-delight) or power or a boost to the self-esteem when we see ourselves in a better light. It adds to our karma-value. We can show off what we've done and impress others or ourselves with a moment of generosity or kindness. This gets into the question of whether or not altruism is possible. Is it possible to give without hope of getting something in return - even just a warm feeling in the belly? It doesn't mean giving is selfish if we take pleasure in it, but that it's never solely about the recipient.

With both, some people get angry at not having an opportunity to give or help, and they'll bombard the receiver with unsolicited aid. And sometimes it's really clear that it's not because they want the receiver to be more comfortable, but because they want to join in. They missed their turn. They didn't get an invite to the birthday party, so they showed up with a gift anyway. Awkward.

And sometimes people ask for something specific. With gifts, this is fairly common - many of us at least leave hints around Christmas and birthdays when we know things we be thrust at us. Hints are another subterfuge to hide the economics of the whole affair. But it's so much harder to do when it's for help.

A surprising number of people have offered help, but it's typically in the form of taking me for groceries or driving to appointments or bringing over food. What we can ask for is limited. I guess it's no different from gifts, actually, it's just different terrain. In gifts we match the general price to the closeness and salary of the donor. My son might ask for a pricey camera, but my friends wouldn't expect more than drinks. With help, instead of money there's a hierarchy of jobs. The O.R. waiting room is for family. Driving to appointments (and filming them) is for close friends. Bringing food to share comes next, followed by bringing food to drop and go. It's all very lovely and all - I'm not questioning that - but the boundaries around it are also interesting to me.

Because there are some jobs I don't feel like I could ask anyone to do: the dirty jobs with no entertainment value. I'm not supposed to do housework or lift much of anything for six weeks (although I've been doing dishes and laundry with my daughter's help). But the cats' litter box is overflowing. The whole house needs a scrub down, but that's that box is my biggest concern right now. Even if someone specifically offered, I wouldn't let them. It feels like a debt too big to repay - or something.

I called a cleaning service, and they said they'd come clean everything, but they don't do litter boxes. They'll vacuum around the box, but they won't actually touch the thing. My cats won't be enticed to dig through old crap just because the pathway there is tidy. They're going to start looking for cleaner corners for their toilette if I don't find a means. My older two are back at school, and my youngest is sick, and that's a level of friendship I haven't fostered sufficiently.

The cleaners also won't do my kitchen floor because I let it slip that, the day after surgery, I spilled a beaker of blood on the floor. I was draining my tubes and knocked over the container. I wiped it with paper towels as best I could, and it looks fine, but I'm really wanting that floor scrubbed good and clean. But how does one go about asking a friend - that one's not sleeping with - to get on hands and knees for them?? It's like really needing a new car, but having nobody to buy it for you. Except it's not really a luxury item I'm desiring. It's more like needing a new fridge. It's the kind of thing a partner would do, but few else. Not just do, but it's the kind of thing one can ask of a partner.

It occurs to me I might have better luck with a local teenager than a cleaning agency. This is a situation that's beyond generosity and works better as a purely economic exchange (from a less regulated entity). It's not a matter of needing to be close enough, maybe, but that there's no joy in giving something so practical that can't be delivered with a personal flourish. It's at once too personal and too divorced from the personal.

It helps me understand something else. When I'm on the giving end of things, since I don't have a car and can't cook, I always offer services. I can paint or build or clean toilets and scrub floors. But people don't want this kind of help. It's possible they don't trust my ability with the former (regardless my track record), and don't feel comfortable with the latter. It's not that it's embarrassing to have dirt, which is what I always suspected, but that it's too difficult of a debt to repay.

Something like that.


  1. I think Derrida is right about gifts but wrong about debt. We have a whole set of behaviors and attitudes, mostly enculturated but some perhaps innate, that make us a fundamentally social and interdependent species. Indeed, the alienation of the individual from society, and from him- and herself, is the foundation of Marx's critique of capitalism. As much as we need "non-economic" things like company, companionship, love, etc., we all need to work together, and we are all enormously dependent on other people's labor. The notions of debt and reciprocity as social mechanism go back as far as we can see in human society. (See Debt, the First 5000 Years by David Graeber.)

    Capitalism tries to mask this interdependence. In Capital vol I (near the beginning), Marx talks about commodity fetishism, i.e. the social relations of interdependent work are socially and ideologically obscured as a physical and monetary relationship with an object. (C.f. attributing the properties of the god to the physical idol, i.e. fetish.)

    Your "guilt" about asking others -- needing others -- to do the dirty jobs is, I think, a capitalist guilt, not a truly human or social guilt. I suspect you feel guilty because you see yourself not as a bad human being but as a bad capitalist -- falling short of the ideal myth of the rugged individualist. In a human world, you would have cleaned up for someone else last week ("indebting" the community to you), and this week someone would have cleaned up after you, indebting you to the community. This is the way humans have organized themselves socially since, as best we can tell, the beginning of human history.

    P.S. I'm glad the surgery went well and your recovery is rapid.

  2. The best gifts can be given, Marie -- but they can't be bought.

  3. Thanks, Larry - and interesting. That it's capitalist guilt from swimming in it for generations doesn't do much to assuage it, however. But I see this in that first moment I stopped my toddlers from getting their grimy hands in my meal with the words " Ta ta - mine!" I taught them about property and ownership and boundaries and power in that moment. I was going to add a bit about 'paying it forward', but it was crazy long already. That is, can we do work for each other circularly rather than linearly (between two parties) in a way that we feel we're contributing sufficiently to the whole. Can we do it right now despite our upbringing? And there's always from each according to ability to each according to need, so right now I'm in the need part of that equation.


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