Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Love, Generosity, and Obligation

So, I took about a month off from the blog - not on purpose, mind you, but things get busy this time of year. I wasn't on a break from writing - D3hoops kicks up in December and I wrote some pretty good pieces over there - even if you're not into basketball, there's a couple interesting columns, on leadership and relationships and a really unique one on Native American basketball players that's one of the best things I've ever written.

Anyway, I was hoping to get this piece done before Christmas started, since it's kinda topical, but we're not done with Christmas yet, so I made it under the wire. I'm not exactly sure where it happened, but I've developed a reputation as someone who's "not a hugger." As much as I despise categorizing people, we all sort of know the people who don't mind being touched and those people who really don't like being touched; it's often a pretty stark distinction.

I get that I've got some emotional disconnection and tend to entirely miss body language, social cues, and tone of voice, etc, which makes me more difficult to read and connect with - I get that. At the same time, I'm a little sad I'm lumped into that latter group, because hugging is something I genuinely appreciate. There is that love languages thing that was popular for a while and I always come up pretty high on the "physical touch" part of it - there's something about human connection that resonates deeply with me. In college, for good or for ill, I had a thing where I sort of just surprised people with random hugs at unexpected moments. In retrospect, I deeply hope it wasn't creepy and it really was a seldom and random thing. Anyway, all that to say, sometimes people just need a hug - either you or someone else - and I'm down with that.

It's most awkward at the holidays because that's when I tend to be around family. There's lots of hugging around family and that's cool. I think I've developed this reputation as not a hugger, though, since most of my wife's family, at least, has moved to the handshake with me. I get that I've encouraged this, because the welcome and farewell hug line is not something I've typically embraced.* They've sort of got the hint that it's difficult for me. Which is true, but not for the reason people seem to assume.

It's not that I'm not into hugging, it's that I'm really turned off by obligation. As someone who finds deep meaning in physical touch - a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the knee or a really good hug - I think I'm extra sensitive to when those moments are genuine. Some people do the handshake with an elbow grab as a power move, or put a hand on your shoulder to encourage positive vibes - with an ulterior motive, in other words, even if its not sinister or even conscious.

It feels the same way with hugs, a lot of the time. Our society says hugging is something you do - if you're the touchy type of person - most commonly as a greeting or farewell. It's the socially appropriate time to do such a thing. But that's my real problem. I struggle with those hugs precisely because it's an obligation - I can never be sure if the person on the other end really wants to hug me or is just doing it because it's what you're supposed to do. Even if someone is indifferent - like they genuinely don't care one way or another - that just seems wrong to me.

I'm all for hugs when someone needs one or thinks I do. I just don't like not knowing whether someone is really into it or not.

The same goes for gift-giving. My wife is always on me for not being the best gift-giver. I think I'm pretty good when I really set my mind to the hunt and make it work, but so much of our gift-giving feels like obligation. I'm more in the camp of, "If I see something this person would like, I get it, regardless of the time of year or lack of occasion," maybe even the "I'm really grateful for this person right now and want to show that gratitude with a gift," kind of thing - not so much the "this person mows my lawn on occasion and Christmas is a gift-giving holiday, so I better get them a gift," vibe.

Growing up, my aunts and uncles didn't send me Christmas gifts - not unless we were actually spending Christmas together under the same roof. They might've sent the family something, but it wasn't something I ever experienced or expected. Maybe part of that was because there were a lot of cousins and we didn't see each other all that often and it might've gotten expensive - I don't really know - but it makes a lot of sense to me that you get Christmas gifts for people you'll be with on Christmas and not for anyone else (unless you really want to do so).

It's the obligation part that I struggle with. It is a real struggle, though, because I get that this isn't a perfect science. If I want to get my brother something, but don't feel any real compulsion to get something for his wife or my other brother, that creates an awkwardness that's both real and problematic. Likewise, if remote family always sends me something and I never return the gift-giving favor, that creates real tension. As much as I believe a gift shouldn't require a reciprocal exchange, that's sort of humanity is wired - it's the same across cultures and throughout time, almost a sociological phenomenon.

I used to be an incredibly stingy person. That's was my real gift-giving conundrum early on - I just didn't want to spend money on things people really didn't need. I've never been the type to want gifts myself, really, either - I'd much rather get one really well-thought-out thing than a bunch of cool stuff that feels more obligatory. At this point, though, it's not about the money - we've even set an unspecified line item in our household budget for gifts, because we don't want to limit our generosity or stifle the desire to give to others (my wife and I are both frugal and cost-conscious enough that this works ok for us; I wouldn't recommend it for everyone).

I'm happy to give things to people, but I want to be able to give things that have real meaning and not simply out of obligation.

I do understand the opposite perspective, though, too - some people give because the act of giving itself shows care and selflessness. I'm genuinely thankful for people who give me things - I get and appreciate that the act itself says something important about the relationship - I just wonder, though, how much relationship plays into things and how much obligation and expectation has to do with it. That's my struggle.

The best gift-giving experiences I've ever had have been those situations where you're assigned one person - a secret santa kind of thing - everyone volunteers to participate and you have one person to buy for. It becomes a challenge to match the person to the gift. The larger the list of people to buy for, though, the higher chances you just won't find something meaningful for everyone. That's what really bums me out.

I know I'm one of those people who's hard to buy for and I genuinely would not care about getting nothing (I'm also easy, because a large volume of gummy candy makes me about as happy as humanly possibly, if all else fails) if the choice is between that and obligation. I wouldn't feel less loved or less cared about if everyone else got a gift and I got nothing. When I say that, people don't believe me, but I promise you it's true.

There's no real answer here. I've not come to any conclusion or revealed the answer to the mystery that is how my brain works. It's more of an explanation and exploration. If anything, maybe it's a challenge for us to step away from the world of obligation and perhaps treat people more as individuals, rather than social beings with whom we have to observe a common set of rules. If everyone is really unique, perhaps we can develop our own unique habits and interactions that don't follow a set course ascribed for and to all of humankind?

Or maybe it's all bunk and I'm just a jerk... either way, Merry Christmas!

*Pun intended

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