The Gift of Giving

Graham Reside, ​Executive Director, Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership for the Professions, and Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity, talks about how the tradition of holiday gift-giving can create meaning and connection for both the gift-giver and receiver.

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Bridgette Butler:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I'm Bridgette Butler with Health Plus.  The winter holidays are full of wonderful traditions.  One common tradition over the holidays is gift giving.  Here to talk with us today about it really is better to give than receive is Graham Reside, Executive Director of the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions and Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt Divinity.  Welcome, Graham.

Mr. Graham Reside:  Thank you.  It's good to be here.

Bridgette Butler:  How does giving contribute to our well-being?

Mr. Graham Reside:  Every society has forms of gift giving.  The first thing that comes to mind for me is it's a way of creating human connection, or at least feeding human connection.  Then, when I think more practically about my own life, I think when it comes time to give a gift or think about giving a gift, I have to actually attend to the person that I am thinking about or the people I am thinking about, and when we "attend" to people, we care for them.  I think in a busy world, we sometimes forget to care for the people that we love.  So, gift giving is a way of caring.  It's a way of attending.  And we have to "pay" attention, they say.  You pay attention.  "Pay attention," I tell my kids, because it costs us something emotionally, and when it comes to gift giving, sometimes it costs us something financially, but that cost that we pay of attending to another, I think, is a way of caring, and it's the cost of human relationship.  So, it's one of the ways, for me, in which I can care for the people that I love, is to pay attention.  What do they want?  What do they need?  What might give them joy?  The opportunity to stop and think about for the people that are close to us, I think, is a lovely opportunity.  I think the holidays and special occasions ask us to do that, to stop, to pay attention, to care for those that we love.  I don't think it has to be an expensive gift, an extravagant gift, for the person to feel like they have been cared for.  I have felt best about the gifts that I have received, for example, when my kids have put in an effort.  They get me with the gift.  So, that's what I am trying to learn from my own children - how to "get" the person, not what to give them, but how to get them and give them a gift that gets them.

Bridgette Butler:  What are some meaningful ways that we can give of ourselves this holiday season?

Mr. Graham Reside:  Well, again, I think in the modern world, and for many of us, particularly around the holidays, time is a scarce commodity, and being present may be the best present that we give, right?  Sorry to be corny there, but being present, spending time with people that we care about, or want to care about, or want to include in our community ... I began by saying every society has moments of giving gifts, exchanging gifts, as a way of building and creating a sense of solidarity, a sense of community, a sense of oneness with each other.  I like to use holidays, and I think other people do, too, to model for my children that we are part of a larger world than simply our family or simply our friends, but we want to be present for others that we might not know as well, maybe people who are down on their luck, people who are suffering, people who are lonely, people who are sick.  And so, this is a time that I think we can be particularly mindful, because holidays can also be difficult for people who are lonely, or people who are unwell, or people who have suffered a loss, people who are grieving.  So, spending time, I think, with people might be the greatest gift and expanding that sense of community in that way.

Bridgette Butler:  You did allude to this - how can we involve children in this experience, to teach them the value of giving?

Mr. Graham Reside:  I might want to start with what we can learn from kids.  There is something precious about the joy that they get in receiving a gift but also in giving a gift.  So, to be reminded of the joy of gift giving, I think, is important, and also modeling for children that it is not the value, the monetary value of a gift that matters but kind of the "intention" and "attention" that a gift can indicate.  I like to encourage my kids to pick out gifts themselves for relatives, for friends, and also for neighbors and people in the community, and I think it is important, as I said, to get the whole family, children and others, extended members of the family, to participate in some act of giving in the holiday season.  As a religion professor, holidays are holy days, and they are reminders of the gifts that we receive from our Gods, from our ancestors, from strangers, and they remind us of the holiness of our lives that, again, can easily get lost if we don't pay attention, if we don't notice the gift of this life, the gift of our communities, the gifts of our friends and family.  So, having the opportunity to remind children that gifting is a part of the human experience ... it is not just about getting something but it's about noticing that life itself is a gift, that not everyone experiences it that way all the time, and that we should be careful to remember that life is a precious gift, and giving of gifts is a way of both recognizing that fact and perhaps redressing, for some who aren't feeling life as a gift, reminding them.  And I do think, you know, getting a gift from my kid or a child is a particular delight.  Some of my favorite gifts were inexpensive gifts from my kids when they were younger.

Bridgette Butler:  It's just a beautiful way to look at the act of gift giving, that we are also getting a gift ourselves.  Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today and sharing your insights and your experiences.

Mr. Graham Reside:  Yeah, my pleasure.  
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