There’s always another holiday lurking somewhere around the corner: Valentine’s Day. Mother’s Day. Sweetest Day. Birthdays. Christmas. We’ve programmed ourselves to give and receive gifts on these and many other holidays to show our love for one another.
We’ve been told gift-giving is one of our “love languages.” This is ridiculous, and yet we treat it as gospel: I love you—see, here’s this expensive shiny thing I bought you.
Gift-giving is not a love language any more than Pig Latin is a Romance language; rather, gift-giving is a destructive cultural imperative in our society, and we’ve bought it (literally) hook, line, and sinker. We’ve become consumers of love.
The grotesque idea we can somehow commodify love is nauseating. We often give gifts to show our love because we are troubled by real love. Buying diamonds is not evidence of everlasting devotion: commitment, trust, understanding—these are indications of devotion.
Gift-giving is, by definition, transactional—but love is not a transaction. Love is transcendent: it transcends language and material possessions, and can be shown only by our thoughts, actions, and intentions.
Perhaps Jonathan Franzen said it best: “Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. To love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”
This doesn’t mean there’s something necessarily wrong with buying a gift for someone, but don’t fool yourself by associating that gift with love—love doesn’t work that way.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.