“The Gift of the Magi” is an old O. Henry short story about
a poor, young couple planning for Christmas.
Della cuts and sells her long hair in order to afford a gold chain for
Jim’s heirloom pocket watch. Meanwhile,
Jim sells the watch in order to afford the fancy combs Della had wanted.
The story wants you think this is all great. It ends this way:
I have told you the story of two
children who were not wise. Each sold
the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of
these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise.
I’m not buying it. I
think we feel inspired by the story only when we view the characters as mere
allegorical place holders. Sure, we don’t
care about Della’s precious hair or Jim’s old watch, so it seems nice enough to us that they ditched their respective
vanities in a well-intentioned mix-up.
But we’re told that they really
did care about those things. If we
believed that they really had given up their sole prized possessions, we would
have to think of that as at least a medium-sized personal tragedy. Worse still, neither gets anything out of the
other’s heroism. If we take Della and
Jim seriously, this is just plain bad.
Despite its misguided moralizing, the story does offer a
concept I’ve found helpful. It describes
a case in which people mutually give up something they care about for each
other in the false belief it will provide value to the other, when in reality
it won’t. I now refer (not just in this
post, but all the time, for anyone who will listen) to such cases as gift of the magi situations.
Let me give you a couple of other examples.
Years ago, I helped a good friend
move apartments. I picked some doughnuts
on the way in an effort to make the best of a necessary evil. I worked all morning, but I’ve never been an
especially adept mover. My helpfulness
was modest, but my surly antipathy for the whole business was extensive. When I left her later that day, my friend
said, “Thanks for your help, and doughnuts!” But then couldn’t stop from
adding, in a moment of honesty, “Mostly the doughnuts.”
I live in Utah, where I enjoy
taking people fly fishing. But I’ve
experienced confusions in which another person and I will accidentally end up thinking we're doing each other a favor. So – in the past – I’ve found myself
trying to teach someone who would rather not be there at all. “What a hero I am,” I think, “for using this
precious fishing time to help another person!”
Meanwhile, that person is thinking how much they’d rather be sitting on a lawn chair on the bank than getting
badgered over how to mend the line.
These are bad times!
In the first, I gave up something I cared about quite a bit in the
misguided belief that I was making my friend’s life better. With the clarity of hindsight, I think my
friend felt correspondingly obligated to suffer my inept assistance, which was
a net bad. Because we are real persons
rather than parable characters, it would have been much better for us to have
both come clean about our individual interests.
Life is short!
The fly fishing case works the same way. Politeness dictates we act as though we are
benefiting from each other’s sacrifices.
In reality, fishing by myself would have been all upside for me, and not
having to fish with me would have been all upside for the other person.
How much of what we do for others turns out to be
gift-of-the-magi style miscommunication?
My conjecture is: An awful lot.
Psychologists find that pathological
altruism – when one person’s altruistic behavior harms rather than benefits
its recipient – comes up all over the place.
In personal, familial, community, and even national settings, a lot of
what passes for self-sacrifice turns out better described as “self-addiction,” wherein
we misperceive the consequences of our putative well-doing out of an implicit
effort to shore up our moral self-image.
Grant me my conjecture for just a moment. What might explain the pervasiveness of gift
of the magi exchanges? My guess is that
it’s very tempting to think that if I am giving something up for someone else,
they must be getting something out of it.
Even stronger: The thing they’re getting out of it must be comparable in
magnitude to the thing I’m giving up.
Let’s call this the preservation
of value hypothesis.
Consider the Tim McGraw song, “Just to See
You Smile”. It’s told from the
perspective of a down-on-his-luck cowboy.
He spends his meager earnings on his beloved’s whims, quits his job to
accommodate her career, and finally accedes to her breaking up with him and
moving on with another guy. The singer
has no regrets:
Just to see you smile
I’d do anything, that you wanted
When all is said and done
I’d never count the cost, it’s worth all that’s lost
Just to see you smile.
his sacrifices were worth it for the sake of her smile. But why is she smiling? I take it that the singer thinks all the
stuff he’s doing must be good for her values.
After all, it’s bad for his, and nobody else is involved. When I hear this song, I imagine how the
story might go if told from the other person’s point of view. “Mopey, self-indulgent cowboy can’t take a
hint!” He thinks he’s the hero of the
story because he insists on sacrificing.
But his losses ensure transfer to her as gains only if the preservation
of value hypothesis is correct. The
trouble is, it’s not. You can do things
that are both bad for you and bad for the other person. With each successive tragedy, the speaker
seems increasingly unable to brook this possibility. No wonder she breaks up with him.
Here are my
guesses. At least for personal
relationships among grown-ups, most of the things we do for others that are not
net-valuable to us, by our own lights, are also not good for those for whom we
sacrifice. The problem with glorifying
gift of the magi cases is they mislead us into thinking that we should be in
the realm of losses for the other person to be in the realm of gains, when
really the fact that we are in the realm of losses should tip us off in the
other direction. If what I’m doing is
bad for me, it might not be great for those around me.
then, was wrong twice over. He thought
the gift of the magi was both rare and wonderful. I think gift of the magi cases are routine
and terrible. Which is happy news. Our own values probably fit pretty well with
the values of those around us. Want to
help someone? Don't forget what’s good