Category Archives: Philosophy

Gifts Make Me Uncomfortable

My birthday was a little less than a week ago. I figure it’s a good time to talk about gifts. We give gifts for various occasions and no particular occasion at all.

I enjoy giving gifts. Seeing the joy and appreciation on a family member or friends face is fantastic. Giving anonymously feels good too, though, even when you’ll never know whether it was even appreciated.

So, given that I enjoy giving gifts, it’s odd how uncomfortable I am with receiving gifts. I know that the person giving me the gift likely gets the same kind of pleasure I do from the act of giving, but it doesn’t make it easier for me to accept gifts. And I’m not talking about any particular gift or any particular gift giver. It’s pretty consistent for most gifts.

I don’t know when it started or what did it. But nearly every time someone gives me something outside of an exchange, it makes me uncomfortable.

I know gift giving isn’t usually reciprocal, at least not on the occasions I have in mind. On my birthday, in this culture and my family traditions, I’m not expected to give gifts to guests. I receive birthday presents. But even on Christmas when it is usually expected to be a gift exchange, I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I can’t really explain the exact feelings. Sometimes I feel a little guilty when receiving a gift. Sometimes it’s because I feel like I should reciprocate, even when the occasion doesn’t call for it.

And sometimes it’s not so much guilt. I actually feel indebted. I know there’s no expectation in most of the cases. I still feel like I owe them some sort of debt. Sometimes even on Christmas when I have reciprocated, regardless of comparative monetary values.

It also makes me feel a little like the way I feel about asking for help. I don’t like to ask for help, even though I like helping people, and I know other people feel the same way about helping me. But I’m working on becoming better at asking for and accepting help.

I read a book on gratitude last year that was sort of an academic look at the history of gratitude in different cultures throughout history. In some cultures, gifts have been used to put another into your debt. Gifts have been used to signify power structures as well, with gifts flowing in either direction. And in other cultures gifts nearly always require reciprocation.

So perhaps it’s partially an inborn trait. Or if you accept the idea of genetic memory, maybe that explains at least some of it.

I just know that gifts have made me uncomfortable for a long time. But like I’ve been doing with asking for and accepting help, I’ve also been working on my feelings about accepting gifts.

They’re related too. Giving help is one kind of gift, and it’s given without expectations, beyond maybe gratitude. So as I get better at accepting help, I think I’ll get better at accepting gifts as well.

Why Would Anyone Listen to Me?

Why should anyone listen to me? Should people only listen to the “experts”, or can I, as just another guy on my own journey, offer something as well?

I often have at least a hint of self-doubt when writing these blog posts or speaking as some sort of authority on a subject, even when people ask me directly. I figure, though, that we all have different gifts, ways of learning and knowledge we’ve gained. Sharing those things with others and learning what they have to offer as well helps us all grow as individuals and as a society.

I also realize we don’t have to listen to everything that everyone says, nor do we have to share everything. We can decide what we find useful or not and whether to incorporate it into our lives or dismiss it and move on. So feel free to ignore anything or everything I’ve said.

Oscar the Grouch, Eeyore and Me

Oscar the Grouch was one of my favorite Sesame Street characters. I don’t really remember why. What I do remember was that almost nothing anyone did for him made him happy. There were occasions where he’d come out of his grouchiness momentarily, but it usually didn’t last long. He seemed to genuinely enjoy being grouchy, though.

Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh, was worse. Even when reunited with his oft missing tail, no one could make him happy. Fortunately, his mood didn’t rub off on Christopher Robin or the other 100 Acre Wood residents much, unlike it can in real life.

Happiness is a choice you can only make for yourself. You can’t make others happy. They have to decide how they’ll react. Choose to be happy yourself, and maybe they’ll get the idea.

Looking Without Seeing

“I can’t find my glasses,” says the seemingly absentminded sitcom character. “They’re on top of your head,” says their levelheaded spouse/friend. It’s a common trope in tv and movies for a reason. I know I’ve been looking for things and not found them, even though I looked right at or past them. I’d imagine most people have had a similar experience.

Thoreau said, “Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e. we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for” [Journal, 2 July 1857]. The other day, I thought I was looking for my battery charger, all the while telling myself “I CAN’T find it.” How am I supposed to see something when I’ve convinced myself that I can’t?

He also said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see” [Journal, 5 August 1851]. I’ve looked right at things without actually seeing them. It’s frustrating, but not surprising.

Zig Ziglar used to have his audience do an exercise to illustrate the point. He tells people to describe their watches without looking at them. Most of the time, they couldn’t say much more than the brand and analog or digital; their own watch that’s on their wrist. What do each of the buttons say? Are there roman numerals or numbers? What’s at the 12-o’clock position? And so on. Next, he has them look at their watch to see how much detail they’ve missed with something that they likely look at many times each day. Last, he asks what time it was, and most people couldn’t say because they were too focused on everything else.

The only watch I wear is my gps watch, and only while I’m running. I look at it quite often while running —probably too often— but I still find myself having to look again right away because I didn’t see something that I wanted to know. Without looking, I also couldn’t tell you much about any text or markings on the bezel, even after I’ve looked at it probably thousands of times.

The reason was that even with all that looking, I wasn’t seeing. It was certainly all in my “visual ray”, but most of it was outside of my “intellectual ray” at the time. That’s not always a bad thing, though. If we were perfectly aware of everything within our field of view, it could quickly overwhelm the mind. So our minds have to try to decide what’s important, what’s worth actually noticing.

All we can try to do is to be more aware of what we’re looking at to truly see it.

Don’t Let Other People Decide How You Act

Earl Nightingale tells a story in “The Essence of Success” from Sydney Harris. Harris went to a newsstand with a friend. The vendor was rather unfriendly. Harris’ friend thanked him graciously as the vendor remained quiet and sullen. Harris asks about the vendor’s attitude, and his friend says he’s always like that. Harris asks, “Then why do you continue being so polite to him?” His friend replies, “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?”

Letting other people decide how you’re going to act, whatever form that takes, turns control of your life over to someone else, and you don’t know their motives. They’re probably not malevolent, but it’s unlikely that your interests and desires are at the top of their list.

We can take a few lessons from that question, or turned into a statement; don’t let other people decide how you act. First, we can take the particular example in the story. I’ve run into a similar situation at my local grocery store. There is one employee who never said anything other than maybe asking about bags unless I said something first. I always thought she was unfriendly, unhappy, and like she didn’t like her job. I usually left in a slightly worse mood than than when I entered.

Then I realized that an interaction between people isn’t one-sided. If I want something from a relationship with someone, even if it’s just the brief interaction between a customer and cashier once or twice a week, at least half of the outcome is due to my own actions, or inactions. The Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated, is not just a reminder to not treat people badly. It also means that much of the responsibility of any relationship or interaction you care to have falls on your own shoulders. If you always rely on other people to initiate a conversation or take charge of a relationship, you’re going to be pretty lonely.

So I started asking how her day was and making small talk. Her demeanor seemed to improve. Maybe my original perception was a mistake. Or maybe she was mirroring my actions and portrayal towards her. Whatever it was, our interactions have definitely improved.

Another way to not let other people decide how you act has to do with social or cultural pressures. Rollo May said, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” Conformity, whether to advertisements, magazines, social media sites, news, or peer pressure, lets other people decide how you act. If you’re choosing whatever it is because you want it, that’s fine. But making choices to fit in is giving up control.

Liking what’s popular is different than deciding to like (or dislike) something because it’s popular. I regret conforming a couple times as a kid. It’s not so easy to resist external influences when you’re still trying to figure out who you are. Anyway, in the mid-90s, I decided that I didn’t like Nirvana, still one of my all-time favorite bands, anymore because of what some other guys said. Fortunately, that didn’t last long.

Neither of those examples are particularly important in the grand scheme of things. It can be a very powerful rule to live by, though, and just as powerful to ignore. Jim Rohn said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” Not everyone wants their own business. Some people prefer to work for others. That’s fine, as long as it’s part of your plan, and your decision. Don’t work at a job you don’t like just because that’s what you’re expected to do. If you don’t like your job, look for something else. At the very least, it should be part of your plan for the future, whether it’s advancement at the same company, or as a stepping stone to something better elsewhere. Falling into someone else’s plan is letting them decide how you act, with possibly life changing consequences.

The lesson from the story of the unfriendly newsstand vendor really struck home with me. Don’t let other people decide how you act. I’ve spent the last couple years really trying to work on myself, become happier, figure out what I really want, and how to create the life that I want. Acting in my own interest is certainly part of that, and so is how I react to other people. I didn’t always realize that the way I react to other people, the media, news, etc. can play a big role in my overall well-being.