The Birthday Presents

I slid the gifts (all electronic, of course--the kid is turning 14!) into the gift bags recycled from previous presents and tied the bags' string handles together with thin gold ribbon, also recycled. And as I did so, my conscience smote me ever so slightly: isn't this being just a little bit cheesy?

Now, I am no Martha Stewart; in fact, I'm not sure that she and I belong in the same universe. I can't see making a fuss about gift wrapping. "Neat but not gaudy" has always been my watchword, and life's too short for colour-coordinated satin ribbon. Besides, my intentions may be good at the corners, but my execution--no. Definitely not. In fact, I feel mildly virtuous if no part of the box is actually showing. Besides, I do care about the environment. But even as I did what I knew to be the corrrrrectly green thing, a small part of me kept whining that a kid deserves the sheer destructive pleasure of ripping the wrapping paper off his birthday presents. I mean, I'm all for conserving God's beautiful earth, but even so there are some things that are special. Ripping the giftwrap off your birthday presents is like the having occasional small fall-leaf bonfire or popping bubble wrap or secretly, joyously, wickedly throwing out perfectly edible leftover shepherd's pie. Practicality, like all virtues, has its limits.

Useless to tell myself that the kid wouldn't mind: he's a perfectly good male adolescent, and what matters to him isn't the wrapping but the contents thereof (one joystick, one Walkman, one computer game pad). Yes, he might get a pure childish animal blast at shredding the wrapping paper, but it's not something he's apt to miss if it's not there. Not really. Would he? or would he be too polite to tell me?

I left the gifts on the dining room table and immersed myself in tea--not literally, of course!--and thought. When something niggles like this, it matters what's doing the niggling. And of course finding that something was not exactly rocket science (or electronics, for that matter).

In adulthood, we are ofttimes engaged in rebelling against our misspent youth; there's nothing so clear-cut to a person as a sin that that person has thoroughly repented of. And one of my youthful sins was utilitarianism.

Now, there's an interesting boundary here: what's reasonably pragmatic (i.e., an appropriate husbanding of God's bounty) and what's utilitarianism (valuing things only for their usefulness and forgetting their implications for the soul)? The most extreme, and actually evil, case of really sick utilitarianism I can think of was reported by Scott Peck in his _People of the Lie_: parents whose older son had killed himself with a rifle gave the self-same rifle as a Christmas present to their surviving son, because (as they explained to the psychiatrist) it was a perfectly good gun, most boys that age would love to own a gun, and besides, money doesn't grow on trees, does it. That's sick.

But whenever something that someone else has done really grates at you, the chances are good that you should be scrabbling through your conscience, as through the front hall closet, looking for something odiferous that the cat left there. I have made much lesser errors in the same part of the ballpark., that I can assure you. We won't get into the details (sin is always so *boring*!) but I know malignant utilitarianism when I see it. Which is probably what drives me so nuts about purely unfettered capitalism and certain other social evils.

And that's what was bothering me so much about this gift-wrapping business. I am not one to fall into the error of over-valuing the gift wrap on things; I am perhaps slightly too apt to sin in the equal and opposite direction: not being willing to acknowledge that there's a point to all this fuss--but also not being willing to honour human occasions, to give important events their due.

We've looked at about a gazillion reasons for The Decline in Faith in Post-Modern Life, and I'm sure that each and every hypothesis does have attached to it, like a postage stamp, some small part of the great sticky sheet of Truth. Maybe people really are turned off by wishy-washy religious liberalism; I haven't encountered any, but then I lead a somewhat sheltered life. But I do wonder if malignant utilitarianism doesn't come into it somewhere, at least sometimes. This is a world that encourages us, praises us, rewards us, if we use things--and even other people--as though they were disposable, like gift wrap. We're encouraged to grab the presents, rip the paper off in unholy joy, and wallow in the transient itch-scratch of getting exactly what we wanted. Or thought we wanted. Of course the itch comes back, but that's an excuse for another much-deserved present.

But that's not what God is about. For starters, forget about ripping off the gift-wrap; we can't get near enough the sheer Otherness of God to get our fingernails scrabbling under that tape and see what's inside the box. We have, in fact, the uneasy feeling that maybe it's not gift wrap at all: that maybe all that glory that gift wrap promises over plain cardboard does, in fact, go all the way through God and out the other side, if that isn't too blasphemous a thought. Moreover, what's inside the box is beyond our control or comprehension: the inverse of Pandora's box, great good primed to fling itself through the universe and life and everything.

And God does not reward us by scratching our itches, as human gifts do. In fact, God tends to reward us by making us itchier in new and profoundly important areas. God does not give us God's splendid gifts of itchiness and mercy because it's some special occasion or because we've earned them: you can't earn a gift anyway. God gives because that's God. Presumably God could decide not to, but he made that promise to us, that he would simply love us, all those years ago, stretched out in agony on two pieces of wood. And again, what's the usefulness of *that*?

No, God and utilitarianism are no more in the same part of town as Martha Stewart and I, although I may be being unfair to her here. Not that God has anything against being practical, conserving resources, treasuring what we've been so profligately given. If we all were to "wear it out, make it new, do without, make it do"--if we all rejoiced in and were humbly thankful for what we have, instead of demanding more--then landfill would not be the problem it is. North Americans really are pretty gross sometimes.

But the problem is even greater: we're encouraged to feel that way about people, not things: to regard what should be utilitarian It as beloved Thou and what should be Thou as It--and sometimes failing to love Its that ought to be Thous, like this living earth which should be so much a Thou to us that we'd even give up SUVs for it. So much of the trouble in people's lives comes from confusing Thous and Its... God, on the other hand, is quite clear: Thous are for being beloved; Its are for respect and proper stewardship, but the more love the better.

But there is a soulfulness to some mere it-things, like birthday gifts, and that soulfulness needs to be regarded. There really are symbols, after all: outward and visible signs. And maybe some of them really are pretty silly. Not that you should always set aside prudence and practicality and good commonsense for sheer silliness, and let's face it, gift bags are commonsensical while wrapping paper is silly. Still, silliness does perhaps have a small corner in God's universe, at least sometimes, as long as we keep in mind that it is silliness and not to be taken seriously, and that living, breathing, beautifully soul-enriching trees matter much, much more.

Silliness as a strong defence against malignant utilitarianism: what is that, really, but the foolishness of God and the wisdom of humans? Is that perhaps what giftwrap is supposed to be about --sheer childishness? But isn't that what we are enjoined to be, not only practical, pragmatic adults, but sometimes mere children?

I hunted out some plain silver giftwrap, cheap stuff from the local discount store, and took a little time with scissors and tape. This time, I even remembered to pick the price tags off. This is much better, really; adults will enjoy receiving presents in these beautiful bags with their handles tied with gold ribbon, and adults will enjoy handing the bags on to other adults, a moveable treasure in and of themselves, as I had treasured these bags when they came full of good things for me.

I thought, as I struggled with paper and tape (oh, those corners...) that it really depends why you're doing this: to show off how skilled and tasteful you are, or to have a chance to think lovingly of the person who's present you're wrapping , to remember back to when he was brand new, and to give that person one second's extra unholy joy. And then I thought, he may be a 14-year-old boy but he does like things to have a little grace, so I stuck some golden ribbon curls with a little scotch tape onto the upper left corner of the wrapped joystick. By the time I got to the Walkman in its awkward molded plastic, I'd run out of paper, so it went into a gift bag, lightly shrouded in a strip of untaped silver--just as well, given the complete hash I making of wrapping anything that doesn't have all 90-degree angles. Maybe Martha Stewart can gracefully wrap a Walkman, but not me.

Now about that cake...

For John
b. Aug. 25, 1986

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 26 Aug 2000
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