The Gift: Its Meaning in Life & Individual Therapy
In our culture, the Holidays are powerfully associated with receiving gifts: what does the experience of “gift” actually mean, in our lives — and in individual therapy?
You may be sceptical whether there is any significant link between receiving gifts and individual therapy: bear with me, reader, bear with me! First, let’s ask: what do gifts mean in human life?
The Spiritual and Material Power of the Gift
Anthropology, the study of human roots, emphasizes that gift-giving is a near universal human characteristic, appearing among the vast majority of human cultures world-wide. What is it that makes gift-giving so important, so special?
Marcel Mauss, the French anthropologist/sociologist observed that gifts are never truly free. In the vast majority of cultural situations, giving of gifts is reciprocal. Mauss became preoccupied with the question: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” He concluded that the gift is more than it seems; that it is endowed with “spiritual mechanisms”, engaging the honour of both giver and receiver.
Gift-giving in most cultures is both a powerful spiritual and material act, because the giver does not merely give an object but also part of her- or himself. As Mauss puts it “the objects are never completely separated from the persons who exchange them”, and the bond between giver and gift creates an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, certainly, but in many cultures, failure to reciprocate would means to lose mana, one’s very spiritual power or essence.
In our own culture and time, we can see the enormous importance and power of reciprocal gift-giving — especially during the holiday season.
Great Gifts that Cannot be Reciprocated
But what do we do with those great gifts that are not given to us by another person, in any normal sense of that word?
The season that we know as Christmas has been associated since the stone age with the return of the sun after the winter solstice. Today, we can explain the fact that the days start to get longer again as a result of the operation of the laws of physics. That was not apparent to the primal human societies of the stone age. It must have been an incredible experience of wonder to those people to see the days gradually grow longer, and to realize that the world was not going to be plunged into an ever greater abyss of endless darkness. To see the sun return in winter — even though the weather itself would still grow colder for a season — must have been an incredible source of hope for our ancestors.
What does one do, in response to that kind of gift, to the things that life just gives, that cannot be reciprocated?
Individual Therapy, Life and the Gift
We know a whole lot more about physics and astronomy now, but the essential nature of human life has not changed. Whether I’m explicitly religious or not, I still stand before the great mysteries of life, and the many things that are inexplicable. Human life still has the same fundamental character of an enormous gift. To have my life and to be consciously aware: these are realities that I did not create, and even today, it’s awe-inspiring to receive these incredible gifts.
How can I reciprocate? How can I give back to Life, the Gods, the Universe, the Ground of Being — however I conceive it? Only by truly receiving the gift, by living to the full, by becoming as conscious as I possibly can. To both be, and to receive, the gift of myself, and my individual unique life: this is the journey of life, and the journey of individual therapy.