Tis that Season, Again: Gifts, Hospitality and Giving Thanks
If you are like me, the thought of the holidays brings both joy and terror: the joy of being around those you love (biological and/or chosen family), the parties, and all of the eating seem to be counterbalanced by the fear and anxieties that arise from customs and pressures. Aside from the usual pressures of having too much together time and falling back into old habits when around friends and family (some good, some bad), the most anxiety making thing for me around the holidays is the expectation of exchanging presents. Will I have enough extra money to get all the things for others that I should? What do I get for each person that is special to that given person? Oh, and what if they don’t like it and want to return it; that would be yet another personal failure. Then there is the business of going to a shopping mall, department store, or “the Internet.” For in person shopping, search fatigue sets in: I can’t stand to go to another store and have the store clerks asking if they can help me with anything. “No!” I want to scream. “Just leave me alone and let me get in and out!” But, my desire to get in and out rarely translates into reality, and after about 2 hours max, I feel that fatigue that disables a single clear thought from surfacing in my brain and all I want to do is find the nearest place to take just a little nap. Online searching fatigue is no better: I don’t know which thing is actually the best even though I have poured through online reviews and “compared” several brands. They all start to look the same to me and I just want to click, pay, and go about my day.
And, this year, to top it all off, is the added extra pandemic fatigue of it all: what about all the workers in the stores, factories, and shipping centers? Am I contributing to their ill health? What about all the farmers growing and raising the food and drink that will get stuffed down our gullets in the holiday season? What about the costs of all this production and consumption to the already stressed planet? Again, the guilt and anxiety come, but this time of the social justice and ecological sort. It is all too much, so naturally I will overcompensate with holiday cheer so much that by the time January rolls around I will be ready to participate in a new, post-holiday ritual: dry January.
This idea of present exchange, and exchange in general is (to my mind) far from the message of gifts, hospitality, and giving thanks this time of year. A gift is precisely not about an exchange or reciprocity. In fact, for Jacques Derrida, “the gift” is an impossibility: even if one gives anonymously, one reaps a reward in simply knowing that they gave the gift. The logic of the gift, he adds, assumes that the giver and receiver are isolated entities, that they do not constantly exchange (biologically, culturally, psychologically) with one another and that one can fully and freely and without any attachment “gift” something to someone else. Of course, what could it mean to “gift” something to someone in this way?
I am no curmudgeon, and I do appreciate gifts and giving gifts in the more colloquial sense of the term. The joy it brings to both parties, and the ways in which a gift can bring people and memories near that are long gone or far away help foster connections between human beings and other critters. I am not denying any of that. However, the gift I give to my husband, say a board game, has materials and labor that were extracted from others, maybe even stolen. This gift, then, starts in covering over all these connections that lead to the moment of gift giving. Maybe in paying attention to these labor, material, and cultural flows of energy, ideas, and information that go into a given moment of gift giving, we would slow down and give much more thanks for the things we do have, and shift our focus to making the giving of gifts more ecologically sound and socially just.
This latter point is what Derrida may be getting at in terms of hospitality. For Derrida, again, hospitality is next to impossible. It requires that one abandon ownership and property and give up everything for the stranger, “the other.” Otherwise, hospitality falls into the exchange/reciprocal relationship that creates us/them (our family, nation vs. “the others”), and expectations are placed upon the guest that reflect these imposed boundaries. We invite guests in for dinner, and expect that they are not going to stay forever, demand housing and food and health care. This is why it is easier to invite friends over: they know the rules unlike (we think) refugees and strangers.
So, what are we to make of this season of hospitality, gifting, and giving thanks? One suggestion is that we take the earth, and maybe life itself as the genuine gift and ultimate hospitable host. Perhaps most of the time, most other species of the planet live in this way: taking no more than what is needed. Maybe the condition of Modernity is such that some humans have come to expect more than can be gifted in the planetary economy. This may well be an adverse reaction to the aspect of nature that is “red in tooth and claw,” but it still doesn’t excuse the hoarding behavior that leaves so much of the planet and the bodies therein, with so little.
The winter solstice is upon us, the darkest point of the solar year at which the new year begins to enter in: in winter and darkness one finds renewal. This seasonal gift or sign that things will keep going is perhaps most worthy of our thanks. This is not to say that everything gifted to us in life is a blessing: we are not in a Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas special. But, it is to say that we are the recipients of long processes of cosmic expansion and planetary evolution. For some of us in places of privilege, this means, as I mentioned above: working toward more just and ecological conditions for the entire planetary community (and not just those who can afford to exchange gifts this time of year). For others, this means that even the “least of these” should have the opportunity to give thanks to these planetary and cosmic gifts. The fact that we live in worlds that disable some (both human and non) from thanks giving and instead inflict misery and insult is an affront to the whole living process. Gifts and hospitality should be the basis for our planetary existence, not the privilege of the wealthy. Working to build worlds in which all earth bodies have the possibility to give thanks is, then, perhaps the only real gift we can give.
Whitney A. Bauman is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University. He is the co-author (with Kevin O’Brien) of Environmental Ethics and Uncertainty: Wrestling with Wicked Problems (Routledge 2019), and Religion and Ecology: Developing A Planetary Ethic (Columbia University Press, 2014).
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