Sometimes It Really Is the Thought That Counts

December 22, 2009

For Sunday, December 20, 2009

There is an art to giving gifts, particularly if you don’t have much money. Unfortunately, this art can’t usually be practiced at the last minute, whether it’s before a birthday or before some other more seasonal holiday. It takes ongoing effort to keep people and possibilities connected in your mind so that you can find meaningful gifts that say that you know who people are, that you have been paying attention to them. This can be especially important when you’re a student. So much of your year is spent focused on studying that the people you care about can feel neglected. The right gifts can say you’ve been thinking about them. No amount of money can purchase such thoughtfulness.

The thoughtful hunting and gathering of gift giving at any time of year—finding just the right thing for someone—may actually help keep your brain agile, preventing memory loss, increasing your ability to solve problems, and helping you study more effectively. What might seem like a waste of time and money can actually become a creative activity. In Neurobics, Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin (1999) share multiple ways to engage the brain in novel tasks, suggesting that visits to hardware stores, flea markets, and small bookstores are tasks that can provide multi-sensory input and stimulate the memory, reminding you, for example, that your sister never has a hammer when she needs one or that your dad is always talking about a book that was his favorite when he was in school. You spend a little, but you find a gift that means a lot.

Thrift shopping and garage sale-ing can do this as well, I suspect. Any of these tasks encourages the development of what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as “self-actualizing creativity,” which he defines as the ability to do just about anything creatively. Serendipity and purposefulness collide as the brain makes connections among seemingly disparate things. You see something that reminds you of someone and you connect the person and the thing.

One of the best gifts I’ve received recently wasn’t even really a gift. It was the two apples our son bought for my husband and me and had ready for us to take with us on the long drive from his home to ours after Thanksgiving. Every bite tasted sweeter because this small thoughtful act said that he knew we liked apples for breakfast and that he’d remembered our favorite kind.

What’s the best gift you ever gave or received? What made it special?

Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, but the work of the artist is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning.
• Katherine Anne Porter


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