One of the problems with the idea of a gift is that it typically sets in motion an economy of exchange that, unintended by the giver and receiver, can set up a sense of inequality and debit that is not easily overcome. We’ve all been in this social situation before: someone at work gives you a holiday present, unexpectedly, with the sincerest desire to be kind and nice. Yet, you feel indebted, even embarrassed perhaps, for not having something ready at hand to give in return. This exchange sets up an imbalance that denies the possibility of a true gift, for a true gift is freely given and received without there being established such pressure for reciprocation, without there arising a sense of self-gratification or embarrassment, without the possibility of something ever given in return.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida was, along with many other topics, deeply concerned about the possibility of a true gift. He believed that for something to truly be a gift it must not appear as such and can only be ‘given’ outside of the confines of the economy of exchange that elicits a response in return that, in effect, ‘annuls’ the gift’s debt. What he means by this is that even if the only response a recipient can offer is a polite “Thank you,” the inherent elicitation of that response arises from without due to the imposition of the ‘gift’ or gesture of another.
This is indeed paradoxical. What does it mean have a genuine gift? Can one escape the ostensible aporia of the dynamics of giving and taking?
St. Francis had an intuitive sense of the impossibility of the gift and the dynamics of relationship that it implies. In his Admonition XXVI, Francis writes:
Blessed is the servant who loves his brother as much when he is sick and cannot repay him as when he is well and can repay him.
What an odd, little aphorism for a thirteenth-century mendicant to share with his brothers. Love, something Derrida also had philosophical concerns about in a way not unlike the possibility of a genuine gift, is tied up in Francis’s admonition within the same economy as Derrida’s gift.
True love, as the later heading for this admonition will term it, seems to move beyond the ordinary dynamics of what is seen and experienced. It exists only in the absence of the possibility of return. Contrary to the “Prayer attributed to St. Francis,” the true gift of love does not take place such that, “it is in giving that we receive.” No. It is, for Francis, only possible to “give” true love when it is impossible to receive in return.
This is a call to love as Jesus Christ did: an exercise of agape, self-giving, disinterested love.
Francis echoes this sensibility in the next admonition, when he writes:
Blessed is the servant who loves and respects his brother as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him, and who would not say anything behind his back that he would not say with charity in his presence.
It is the absence that marks the difference in this sense of the gift of love. When there is no possibility of return because the other is not present, when one has no obvious way to give the gift of kindness, of charity, of compliment — this is when impossible gift of love is possibly given.
Too often people think of the way of Christ’s love as “giving one’s self totally” in terms of what one does in an observable way for another. But what is the true gift? Can we give it? Can we love without the slightest possibility of return? Can we give without acknowledgement or acceptance? Can we give without the gift ever being received?
Derrida says that the possibility of such a gift is inextricably tied up with its very impossibility, but the longing for the genuine gift — as well as genuine love, forgiveness, mourning, and so on — is nevertheless essential. Perhaps this is the meaning of Christian discipleship in action, the striving toward the Reign of God in our actions, longing to love as Christ has and as Francis admonished.