Is there such thing as a gift given without a string attached? Or do we always, on some level, give of our time, energy or money with a little expectation of receiving something in return?
That was the question that the popular sit-com Friends tried to answer through the struggles of one of the main characters, Phoebe. In the episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS,” Phoebe bets Joey that there is such thing as a completely selfless good deed.
Rachel: Maybe Joey’s right. Maybe all good deeds are selfish.
Phoebe: I will find a selfless good deed. ‘Cause I just gave birth to three children and I will not let them be raised in a world where Joey is right.
Phoebe does all sorts of things, such as letting a bee sting her in the park, to prove that selfless deeds exist, to no avail. Ultimately, she decides to donate $200 to PBS, a channel she hates because it reminds her of her deceased mother, with the logic that it pains her to give her own money to something she hates. However, it doesn’t work out that way. Phoebe’s donation allows her good friend Joey to get on TV, making Phoebe feel happy. Because she ultimately felt good about her selfless act, she loses the bet.
The episode seems to draw the conclusion that selfless giving is enigmatic. If even our best-intentioned, most selflessly-inspired good deeds give us reciprocity in the form of good feelings, happiness or joy – then can it truly be called selfless, no-strings attached giving? And how often do we honestly give selflessly without expecting anything in return, anyway?
I imagine we have each been in the position, especially during a giving time of year such as is happening now, when a friend or colleague of ours has given us an unexpected gift and we don’t have a gift ready to reciprocate with. I personally can attest to feeling awful in that type of situation. If I’m given an unexpected gift, I instantly feel guilt and a bit of panic. Guilt, for not thinking ahead and preparing a present in the generous manner my acquaintance clearly did. Panic, for trying to figure out how to rectify the situation and get them a present, STAT! It’s common this time of year, but it’s certainly not limited to actual, tangible things that we wrap up in pretty paper (or glittery bags, if you’re lazy like me).
I’d like to think that I can be selfless and giving. Generosity is one of the traits I value most deeply in others. It’s probably one of the reasons I love my parents so much. They’ve taught me about the meaning of generosity over and over again, and I do my best to emulate their example. I have to admit, though, that there is a little nugget of expectation inside of me when I give to others.
For example, I used to think that if I did this for one friend who just went through a break-up, or that for another friend who just had a baby, that this friend and that friend would do the same for me when I went through a break-up or had a baby. It didn’t happen that way. So I got bitter. I may have felt good after the initial giving act, but ultimately I let the resentment stemming from non-reciprocity harden my heart.
Whose fault was that? Theirs, for not reciprocating? For taking and not giving back in kind? Or mine, for not setting clear expectations or asking for what I really wanted, and for giving my gift of time and energy with strings attached?
Or maybe fault isn’t the important question here.
If someone is to blame, someone is wrong and someone is right. I don’t want to be right. I want to be happy. I want to give love freely, without conditions or strings. I also want to receive freely, without guilt.
That means I have to let go of a lot of things. I have to let go of the social structure which is constructed of our own beliefs and is therefore imaginary, anyway. I have to embrace the perception of inequity. I have to be willing to release expectations and lose my grip on selfishness in a way I’ve never truly challenged myself to do before. I have to let someone do something nice for me and let it be, without panicking about reciprocation. I also have to give without expecting an immediate or eventual return. That’s the only way I can envision string-free giving.
As with Phoebe on Friends, it may well be that there is no such thing as giving without receiving something in return. That may just be the way the world works. Maybe it’s all a part of the cycle of life, as long as we give the world enough time to spin. We may not be able to change this particular law of the universe, but we can let go of our expectations. I personally would have felt much more freedom and peace if I didn’t expect a friend to behave in a certain manner just because I gave her some of my time. I can also imagine that a colleague that bought me a gift when I didn’t have one to return to her would appreciate my joy and surprise and prefer me not to feel guilty or remorseful.
The holidays are about giving and receiving. We can all learn to be better at both. Let’s open our hearts a bit, let go of expectations, and see what happens.