The Problem with 'Gifting'
by Felissia Cappelletti

Every time my mom or gramma asks for gift ideas for me, I'll always remind them that cash is the most universal, most needed, and most convenient gift. I love getting cash as a gift because I can use it to pay off my credit debt - which for me feels great and is just as good as material gifts. So when Jim introduced me to the "Gift" project he started in remembrance of his father, I told him I thought it was a great idea. It is a great idea. Especially because it has the potential to make all the difference for someone who really needs it. So why, when it came time to participate in the project, did I hesitate? For some reason, I always choked when it came time to give the gift. I asked myself why.

It's not because I'm uncomfortable with the idea of giving a random gift to a stranger. On the contrary, I identify with a sub-culture community which is heavy on gift-giving. In fact, "gifting" is a very popular way of introducing oneself, thanking someone, or just making someone's day among my community and I think it's fantastic. Although, within the community, we have one stipulation to gifting. No cash. The theory being, I think, that friendship, gratitude and happiness should not be commodified. Normally, my friends make a habit of passing out small trinkets; beautiful pebbles, sticks of incense, stickers or homemade specialties - my gift of choice is a hand-made colorful thread friendship bracelet. Things like this don't cost much, or have no monetary value at all, but they seem to symbolize the true intention of gifting anyway.

A lot of my anxiety about gifts comes from my extremely good luck as a child of having multiple Christmas and birthday celebrations with my various family groups. Being the only child/grandchild/niece in the family for 7 years, I got a lot of gifts. My mother, a virtuous woman through and through, deeply ingrained in me the importance of gratitude and appreciation. So I think I had a little bit of a complex early on about receiving so many undeserved gifts and feeling unable to respond in kind. I still feel guilty when I receive a gift greater in value than one I have given. I suppose I project this "receiver's anxiety" onto others and assume that when a gift is given randomly and is greater in value than what that person would be able/ willing to give to me, that there may be the danger of offending or disheartening the receiver.
Besides all this mental hang-up, I also had an attempted gifting experience which set me back some. The intended recipient was an older homeless woman. She could, I think, be aptly described as a "bag lady". She had a shopping cart full of bags of stuff and was wearing clothes in need of washing. She, herself, looked like she could really use $20. But when I approached her, she quickly turned away from me, at first ignoring me, then snapping that no, she didn't want anything from me, and that I should leave. I felt that I had insulted her and regretted it.

I think there's a stigma attached to cash. It's a little pretentious, somehow competitive, a status symbol. And in a society that's so used to handing cash over a counter in exchange for some thing, it almost seems that the giving of money pre-assumes there will be something given in return, which makes it awkward for the receiver. Especially in this case, where the recipient didn't ask for anything, and presumably did nothing to deserve the gift, the sudden exchange quite unconsciously asks something of the recipient.

After reconsidering these revelations, however, I realized most of what was in the way of this great and generous project were my own insecurities. I forced myself out of that frame of mind so that I was finally able to complete the experiment. In my gifting, I gave to two people who were homeless, one traveling youth and one out-of-work man. The hardest part for me about the exchange with these people was the unfortunate vibe that the gift was demeaning to them, that I expected gracious thanks and praise, that I thought myself above them because I was in a position to give while they were only in a position to receive. Which is, of course, not the attitude this project hopes to inspire. In other words, the cash favor made me feel like the recipient felt like I wanted them to fell indebted to me. There's a lot of subliminal communication that goes on between strangers, after all. Think about your daily interaction with strangers. At least for me, it's usually unspoken: looks, body language. In this case, the recipient is responsible for making a snap judgment about the purpose, legitimacy, and intention of the gift and me, the giver. Today, it's easy to assume if someone gives you something for free, the next thing they will do is try to rip you off. Anymore, it takes a lot of effort to trust anyone. So perhaps I am asking a lot of this recipient. I am also expecting them to smile and say thank you, to let me take their picture in the somewhat vulnerable position of recipient of "undue" reward.

I can't of course, know how the gift effected my recipients directly, or indirectly, however on both accounts I was afterwards engaged in conversation which I enjoyed, and which functioned as a more than adequate "thank you". In hind sight, I think I made the whole thing out to be a lot bigger of a deal than it had to be. I'm glad Jim is heading this project, I'm glad to have participated. But from now on, I think I'll stick to bracelets.

Felissia Cappelletti is a freelance writer residing in Chicago, IL. She writes an Art Blog featured on U-Turn Art E-zine.