When the present is no longer a gift

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When the present is no longer a gift

The Lunar New Year isn’t always a time of joy; one close friend sighed heavily as we discussed the season. I asked him why he felt so low.

He said, “It’s because of holiday gifts. The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday but I only got one present. And it was from a friend. I only got one for Chuseok last fall as well. This is starting to get me down.

“My relationships and networks are all over. Holidays and holiday gifts are signs that clearly illustrate the state of your relationships. Gifts aren’t about personalities in Korea, but about titles. Now that I’m in my 50s, I’ve realized the truth. At this age, a gift isn’t just a gift. It’s actually a tie that connects you to the rest of the world. Now that I think that tie has been severed, I feel isolated, lonely and unstable.” Up until a year ago, he used to work for one of the country’s major companies.

“I took out my smartphone and scanned through my hundreds of contacts. They’re all familiar names, and I thought I’d always be able to meet any of them for lunch. But that’s not the case any longer. I’m not so confident. I checked the names one by one and thought about our relationships. Then I wrote down the people I felt were close enough to meet for lunch. Only a handful were left, and I was still afraid to call them,” he said.

At this point, I felt it was my duty to contribute something comforting to the conversation.

“Well, there are still a few days to go until the holiday. More gifts must be on the way.”

“No, the delivery companies usually call before they deliver. I haven’t got any calls.”

Apparently, I was making it worse. But I plowed ahead. “A colleague of mine used to say, ‘A good gift can even melt iron.’ That’s true, but in some cases, a relationship built on gifts ends when the presents are no longer exchanged. Don’t get so stressed out.”

“New Year’s gifts are like a report card for my life. Usually performance reviews are conducted at the end of the year. And the outcome is reflected in the New Year.”

As I struggled to think of consoling words, he continued.

“Anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa defined the best gift as ‘giving’ in his book ‘Logos of Love and Economics.’ Giving has nothing to do with the value of a present. Since ancient times, people have wanted to convey love and trust, not the article itself, through gifts. Nakazawa also said that the spirit of giving comes alive like an ancient ghost. That ghost is no longer visiting me.”

Giving up on my failed attempts at consolation, a quote from American cartoonist Bill Keane popped into my head. “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God. Which is why we call it the present,” according to Keane.

But it seems like the present may have passed its expiration date for my dear friend.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae
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