“It’s an unhealthy setup, in which people become slaves to inanimate objects [ . . . ] Once you’re defining it as something you can’t get rid of, you’re not in control of your life or your home.”
– Barry Lubetkin
Gift-giving goes back to ancient times. History textbooks make it a point to elaborate on various treasures that were gifted to leadership figures such as kings, queens, religious figures, honorary soldiers, and others. Gifts were exchanged as symbols of respect, collaboration, and loyalty. I’m no history buff, but at history trivia games, one can at least figure out that gift-giving was a really big deal when it came to impressing people back then.
Gift-giving continues as a tradition today, but they’re mainly tied to holidays like Christmas and birthdays. Growing up, like most kids, I just loved looking forward to Christmas morning. I loved the shiny gift wrap, the sparkling tinsel, the giant ribbons and bows, and the shining Christmas tree. And I loved getting stuff for my birthday. When you’re a small child and you don’t have the freedom of easily acquiring stuff of your own, the prospect of getting toys and stuff is incredibly exciting. In Asian culture, gift-giving is still a pretty big deal. So much so, that among traditional Asian families, people have come to expect gifts as mandatory courtesy (though they won’t say it out loud). You come to my house, you’d better bring something with you. I was born in America to immigrant parents, so growing up, I witnessed much of the gift-giving culture firsthand (it carries on even today). These gifts are usually consumables – boxes of fruit, multivitamins, traditional desserts, tea, or other foodstuffs, but sometimes home goods, like decorative plaques, lotions, or toys for the kids would be given.
So I also loved having family friends over…not just because I would potentially have a playmate, but also because they’d usually bring me treats and trinkets. Due to customary gift giving in the culture I grew up in, I was taught at an early age that stuff was something I should expect from visitors and friends. Looking back, I am not sure I noticed that we also gave gifts because I was too excited about receiving things.
There isn’t usually anything ill-intentioned at all about gift giving. In almost all cases, we are simply communicating affection or appreciation to the receiver, nothing more. Unfortunately, opportunistic businesspeople have turned gift-giving into consumerism bait (read: Hallmark Holidays). Heck, gift-giving is even touted as a love language, and I suspect that it has something to do with childhood grooming of my future (now past) stuff-obsessed self. Thankfully, it is not my primary love language, but at one time, it might have been.
It is really hard to declutter gifts. You feel like by removing the item from your home, you’re throwing away or giving away the good intentions that the giver had, not to mention the money and time spent on acquiring the item for you. And if that person finds out, we dread the possibility that he or she may very well feel offended. The more the item is worth, the worse the guilt. And when the item is an heirloom or a prized family treasure, even more is at stake. The perceived value of an item is dependent on more than monetary worth and replace-ability (rarity) – its value is also tied to what it represents. We dread communicating to others an unappreciation for what it symbolizes. Getting rid of your grandfather’s war medals would suggest to others that you perhaps don’t appreciate his sacrifices and your good fortune that he did what he did.
That guilt and fear is enough to paralyze people in their decluttering efforts. But I am here to tell you that:
- These feelings are perfectly normal, and in fact, perfectly healthy ones, and
- Your feelings about a particular event, person, or concept, do not have to be tied to you keeping something associated with it, or even to the item itself.
The fact that you even have guilt as you declutter a gift should be enough to clarify your true feelings about the subject at hand. Because if you thoughtlessly threw something in the garbage without any regard for who it might affect, then it would really suggest a lack of care. Because your feelings about a person does not live in a thing. It lives in you. And you, are so much more precious than a thing. Any reasonable gift giver would not want you to feel burdened by a gift. And as any responsible gift giver knows, the minute you give something away, you are effectively passing ownership to someone else. If you wanted it to be kept, you should not have given it away.
Let’s not gift burdens to other people. There are other ways to give to others: (see here, here, and here). I’ll eventually make a list of my own, but for now, I’ll let other minimalists speak. It is okay for you to declutter gifts. Release the burden and honor the intention.