In Theravada Buddhism, the Bodhisattva (the Buddha pre-enlightenment) spent 540 lives cultivating the ten perfections so that he could at last be enlightened as Siddhartha. Generosity is the first of the perfections, but the last to be mastered. The Bodhisattva began by giving his wealth. Then he immolated his body so another could eat. Last and most astonishingly, he gave his children into slavery in his penultimate birth as Prince Vessantara.
What is the lesson? Giving gifts well is hard. If we give something we expect the recipient wants, she may already have it or something like it. She may not want it all. Or she may want it, but within a month, she doesn’t. When she moves to a new home, she quietly resents the giver for having burdened her. Consumables are better, but treats present complications. The recipient feels obligated to consume the gift but frets about her health. We remember difficulties with the Golden Rule: Giving unto others as we would want may make the recipient worse off. Oftentimes, our wants diverge.
If we give a necessity, the act is cheap. Generosity should be an ornament on the balsam of our lives, not a proxy for a shopping trip. Worse, the necessity may not quite serve its purpose or be too cheap to serve its purpose long (givers can only spend so much). Even if the recipient asks for a specific item, she may spend weeks or months leading up to a holiday bereft of a necessity or languishing with an inferior version. I once took many unnecessary trips to Starbucks because I had foolishly asked for a coffee maker for my birthday.
We attempt to mediate navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of generosity with gift cards, which prove we put in thought and grant the recipient a measure of autonomy. But gift cards impose a burden on the recipient. They are more difficult to redeem than cash, redemption codes can be damaged rendering the card useless, or the card can be lost. Cash goes straightaway into wallet or purse. We put more effort into obtaining gift cards than cash. In terms of expected value, both giver and recipient lose. Once we realize that cash is an alternative, gift cards are only truly a gift to a business because they are redeemed less often than cash.
Consider the folkways of giving. We may give too expensive or too cheap a gift for the occasion or in light of what others have given. Signals are crossed over whether an occasion merits exchange of gifts. Awkwardness ensues. A thoughtful gift may be compromised because it was not received well. Or perhaps circumstances have changed, e.g., a gift for a beloved pet evokes pain because the pet abruptly died. Proper planning assuages most of these difficulties, but staged generosity is mediocre.
Gift giving cannot appear difficult. If we struggle, make a show of giving, or consider it a chore, we have given poorly. So too if giving comes too easily. The Pali version of the Vessantara tale attests that the prince was addicted to giving like an alcoholic is addicted to drink. For all his perfections, the Bodhisattva gave poorly, not only because of his addiction but because easy giving shows a lack of regard for the recipient. No wonder “Vessantara” is an insult in Sri Lanka. The magnanimous person is as selfish as he is generous.
Giving a gift well is so difficult, so elusive, that we wonder if it can only happen by accident. This is precisely what happens in O. Henry’s famous story “The Gift of the Magi.” James sells his pocket watch, the one thing he owns of worth, to purchase expensive combs for Della’s luxurious hair. Della sells her hair, her only valuable possession, to purchase a gold chain for James’s watch. By accident, both received gifts that are now useless, which inexplicably makes the gifts more perfect.
Giving gifts well is so rare, so nearly divine, we should build monuments with the inscription: “Here a gift was given well.”