A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer. – Seneca
What does that mean?
This is similar to other quotes that urge us to look beyond the gift, and consider the motive or motivation of the giver. Was the gift given to place you under a presumed obligation to the giver, that they might take advantage of you at a future point in time?
That’s why the quote asks us to examine the intention of the person giving the gift (or giving you a benefit, in some translations). Is it a gift or a trap? Or is it solely being given to show how great a person the giver is, that they would give away such a large/nice/etc gift? That might be something to think about.
The quote also reminds us, in a slightly dry manner, that it’s the thought that counts, not the gift itself. I’m sure that you have heard something like that before, and I believe that it is quite true. Some of our most treasured possessions are the silly little gifts that were heartfelt. At least that’s the way it is in my family.
Why is knowing the intention important?
Bribery has many different disguises. It can be blatant, like a gift of a briefcase full of cash. It can be subtle, like a ticket to the must-see show of the year appearing up in your mailbox. Either of these gifts could be perfectly fine (morally and ethically, as well as legally), if it was given by a close friend with no ulterior motives.
But what if it was given by someone with an agenda? What if you knew what they wanted, and you still accepted the gift? In Latin, that is called “Quid Pro Quo” or an equal exchange. This for that. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. It’s fairly straight forward, they have given you something with the expectation that you will give them something in return.
Now consider the last few gifts you gave. What was your intention in each case? How many were truly gifts, and how many were attempts to gain favor or to get something you wanted? If you’re like most of us, once you go back past the holidays, your motives get a little less clear, right?
Where can I apply this in my life?
This quote could be used as a warning both to the person giving the gift as well as to the person receiving it. I would like to start with considering under what circumstances you would refuse a gift. How expensive a gift would you feel comfortable accepting before you would feel obligated to the giver in some degree?
If you were willing to be obligated to them, you might choose to keep it. But if what the person wanted in exchange for the gift wasn’t to you liking, you would be best served by refusing the gift, right? There are also times when it is best not to accept for legal or ethical reasons.
But sometimes the social pressure to accept a gift makes it hard to decline. Consider approaching the person afterwards and returning it at that point. Make sure they know you aren’t going to be involved with what they wanted from you in return for that gift.
What about your gift-giving habits? How often do you select a gift for someone because you want to get on their good side? How often do you pick something a little more expensive than is appropriate for the relationship, just to impress them?
Are those gifts given for the sake of the person receiving, or are they gifts that benefit you? If you are the primary beneficiary, then are they really a gift to the other person, or are they a gift to yourself? Have you even considered the moral and ethical position in which both of you end up?
For those who celebrate Valentines Day, it’s going to be here in less than two weeks. That’s a Western tradition where the guys try to give lavish and largely self-serving gifts. Yes, they may be given to the girls, but the guys are expecting something in return, right? So for whom is the gift?
What does a gift that comes with expectations really get you? Generally, it leaves you entangled with the other person. There are circumstances where that is ethical and moral behavior. And there are times when it is not. How many movies have been made where a gift causes more trouble than it is worth?
We have spoken specifically about gifts that are given, but as the quote notes, gifts can be done as well. They are usually called ‘favors’ in this case, but the result is the same. Entanglement. Did the neighbor rake your leaves because they’re kind, or are they going to ask to use your tools?