Q: I’ve been thinking about what it is to receive a gift well. I find that I don’t like getting gifts, because I never know how to respond. I can sometimes even feel guilty that someone has gone to the trouble of getting me something. Is there a way I can receive gifts better?
A: I really like this question. Thank you for asking it. One of the things I like about it is that, on the surface, it seems like a simple issue (kind of like a “non-problem problem”). But if we take a closer look, we are not merely talking about the proper etiquette for giving or receiving gifts. Truly, all of life is a gift. How we receive this gift will determine almost everything about the shape and tenor of our lives. So this question actually goes to the heart of how we live, not merely how we might politely accept a gift on our birthday or Christmas.
But to get to the heart of this, let’s look at the best way to receive an actual present.
I would offer that there are at least four essential parts of receiving a gift well. Two are “hidden” and two are outward expressions.
The first part of receiving any gift well is noticing. We have to notice that a gift has been given. This is easy to do when you’ve just opened a package with your name attached to it, but as noted above, all of life is a gift. Everything that you and I have in our lives is the result of the generosity of God or of the people around us. How many of us even notice that the lights come on when we flick the switch? How many of us pay attention to the fact that the “flush” function of the toilet takes away what it is supposed to take away? How many of us notice when we open our eyes in the morning and they actually work?
A number of years ago, I was an associate priest in Hibbing, and the power went out for a couple of days. And when I say “the power went out,” I don’t mean that just the lights stopped working. I mean that everything that had been powered by the power station completely stopped operating. Essentially, it was a small taste of the day when “the grid” will go down. (I don’t mean to sound like a “prepper” here, but I got a glimpse into how much every one of us relies on so many other people to stay alive.)
This happened in the middle of winter, and it was bitterly cold. But there was no way to keep homes warm. There were no street lights — anywhere. I’m not sure if the gas pumps even worked. If the power outage lasted long enough, I’m not sure they would have been able to plow the roads. Just think of how reliant we are on those snow plows every single time it snows.
The point is, we are surrounded by gifts. Do we even notice? The first step in receiving a gift well is paying attention and noticing.
The second part of receiving a gift well is appreciating the gift. What this means is to stop and weigh out what this gift means. It involves becoming conscious of the value of the gift. To appreciate a thing is to know its value. Consider how important this is. How many of us could look back on our youth and discover (to our shame) how often we took the gifts given to us for granted? We can look back at the ways our parents sacrificed to keep us fed and clothed and housed (and in hockey skates or in braces for our teeth or paid for that flute that we never practiced). We can look back on all of the teachers or youth ministers who were so patient with us. Hopefully, now we have a new appreciation for those sacrifices, because now we know what they cost the people who made them for us.
Receiving a gift well means noticing the gift and appreciating the value of the gift. Those happen on the inside, but there needs to be an outward expression as well.
The third essential part of receiving a gift well is possibly the most obvious: expressing gratitude. This should be the most natural of all of these parts. If we have noticed and appreciated the value of the gift, one would think that the automatic response would be gratitude. How could we not look for the source of the gift and say “thank you”?
I wonder if the biggest obstacle to this step for many people is that we know that we don’t deserve gifts of the kind we often receive. There can be a certain sheepishness when someone has truly sacrificed for us, and we are absolutely certain that we didn’t deserve such a sacrifice. In those cases, we might be tempted to dismiss the gratitude out of awkwardness or fail to know how to convey the gratitude we have in our hearts.
Nonetheless, expressing gratitude is essential for receiving a gift well. We look for the source of the gift and attempt to convey our thanks. Even if we cannot capture our thanks, we simply make the attempt.
Finally, the best and most powerful way to receive a gift well does not end with merely offering thanks. The fourth part of receiving a gift well involves using the gift. It is one thing to notice the gift, to appreciate the value of the gift, and to offer thanks. It is another thing entirely to actually use the gift. This last piece is the single best way to receive a gift.
All of life is a gift. I have to ask myself the question: Do I receive this gift well? Do I regularly notice, appreciate, and thank God? Even more, do I use this incredible gift of life that God has entrusted to me? Do I use the incredible gift of being made into an adopted child of God? Do I use the gift of the Holy Spirit to approach the Father in prayer and in praise? Do I use the gift of my body or resources or time to serve the people near me in need?
I would say that this is the best way to receive a gift well.
Fr. Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.