One of the reasons it can be so hard to buy other adults presents is that we haven’t at some level quite factored in that we are now all grown-ups. Presents were probably a deeply special part of our childhoods. We anticipated them eagerly, depended on them almost exclusively – and could be driven to either paroxysms of joy or of sadness by their quality.
But a lot has changed since then. Chiefly, all of us now have our own money. Anything that our friends are badly likely to want, they will either be able to buy for themselves – or we won’t be able to afford to buy it for them.
This isn’t to say that other adults don’t have any requirements; it’s merely that what they seek from us is largely psychological rather than material in nature. Our adult friends do – just like children – need us to offer them things that they can’t get for themselves. But, unlike children, these are not things we could ever buy in a shop: they want encouragement and compassion, they want to be listened to with understanding and sympathy; they want someone to fathom the agonies of their relationships and their struggles with colleagues at work. They crave our kindness, care and interest. They want us to be active in their lives, to forgive them for their follies and to appreciate their strengths.
The sense of despair that hangs over the process of choosing a present stems from our background awareness of how hard it will be ever successfully to identify a material object out in the world that could properly quench a sincere need in another adult. Though once or twice in our lives, we may hit on just the thing, the chances of locating such an object are too miniscule to be statistically relevant – as our own attics and cupboards, filled as they are with the fruits of others’ misguided good intentions, poignantly attest.
We would be better off facing up maturely to the hurdle we face. We cannot hope to guess with any degree of specificity at the objects still missing from the lives of our friends. At the same time, there is no question that we should and must bring presents, for we are all too fragile to believe in love without a wrapped box to underpin our claims.
The solution lies in toning down our ambitions. We won’t be able to determine the subtler contours of the gaps in the material lives of those we love. And yet it is still open to us to offer the kinds of objects we know they will need, not because we can peer into their souls, but because they are human.
We should concentrate our efforts on buying them somewhat above-average examples of the ‘material’ of daily life: scissors, rulers, rubber bands, pencils, notepads, olive oil, salt, nail clippers, earplugs, mineral water, washing up liquid… the things one can be guaranteed to need and always to lack. By investing in slightly higher quality versions of these staples – for example, tracking down one of the very best kinds of dust pans or cans of tuna – we will be emphasising our degree of care.
But the very obviousness of the present is a way of owning up to the dilemma we are up against and of signalling with grace that our real role in our friends’ lives is of an emotional, not a practical, nature.
Showing up with a particularly large and tempting loaf of bread or a luxurious collection of paper clips, we are implicitly declaring the impossibility of fathoming the genuine material gaps in our friends lives – while taking on board our true responsibility towards them, which is and always was: to love them.