“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 me to
When all is said and done
I’d never count the cost, it’s worth all that’s lost
Just to see you smile.
He thinks 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.
O. Henry, 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 for you.