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What is the purpose of a gift?

Share the story. Spark change.

In an hour or so, I will force myself out of my sweatpants and into the cold to go find a few gifts for my loved ones. These gifts will be physically tangible. They will either be sufficiently expensive or sufficiently time-intensive to indicate a sufficient amount of love.

I am going to do this because if I don’t, I will send a message that I do not love people that I in fact love dearly. I will send a message that I am selfish, so wrapped up in my own preoccupations that I can’t find the time to do something kind for them.

These expectations are a problem in and of themselves. Should not my actions for the other 364 days of the year be enough to convey my love?

But more than this, why are my options for “gifts” so limited?

When I give someone a gift, my intention is to convey the message: “I love you. I am thinking about you and I am here for you.”

Are tangible gifts that cost money inherently the best way to send this message? Should I be focusing on the gift that carries this message or the message itself?

I think we all know the answer to that. We are increasingly aware that people give and receive this message of love in different ways. There are 5 Love Languages.

Yet, on Christmas, our socialization directs us to cherish one of these languages above the others, to believe that love is not really fully conveyed without tangible presents.

This custom is wasteful. It is expensive. It fuels consumerism. It actively detaches us from the love and connection that we long for.

I am not the first to make these points. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that most of us know on some level that the tradition of buying a bunch of junk for Christmas is unnecessary, damaging to our planet, and sending the wrong message about love and happiness to our children.

Yet, I am still going to walk out my door in a few moments and do it again.

I am participating in a system that does not make sense to me and which I believe is actively harmful. I will do this because this is how my loved ones receive love. I want them to feel loved and respected, and so I participate in the system.

I think we can and should evolve our expectations for holiday presents. Again, our current customs are completely unnecessary and even destructive. We can do better.

But I find myself in a bind. Is it possible to begin this shift in myself without sending an unintended message to others?

Above all else, my intention is to focus on sending and receiving the message “I love you. I am thinking about you and I am here for you.” in whatever form it takes. But what do I do when right now many of my loved ones receive this message most fully through tangible gifts? Do I withhold gifts because I believe there is a better, more sustainable, more ethical story we can step into? Or do I send the message in the way they will best receive it now?



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Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, son, and cat.

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