The joy of giving, receiving, and decluttering 

Do you prefer to give gifts or would you rather receive them? 

Among the five love languages, receiving gifts is the one that gets showcased the most, especially in this age of social media. You get to show how lucky you are to be showered with gifts by people who love you, thereby eliciting warm feelings and envy in your circle. Words of affirmation and quality time, two of the other languages do not lend themselves for such widespread sharing. No wonder most of us love to receive.

Why am I bringing this up now?

Thanks to Navratri and Diwali celebrations, I have been inundated with kilos of sweets, dry fruit boxes, and other gifts that are still trying to find their place in my apartment. Now with Black Friday deals filling up my feed, I am worried about indulging in further excess.

Am I the only one who simultaneously experiences joy and dread upon receiving a wrapped gift? First I am eager to rip the packaging to see what’s inside but pretty soon I begin to wonder what to do next – use right away, store somewhere, dispose or redeploy?

Grand gestures and small tokens

As someone who has moved across countries, I can honestly say that the more stuff you accumulate, the more painful it is to move. Perhaps because I am of a generation that was not showered with gifts during childhood, I do not expect gifts for birthdays or other important events. Yet, I always appreciate thoughtful personal gifts that tell me that the giver was actively thinking about me while choosing it expressly for me even if there was no occasion to celebrate. 

Although I don’t want to sound ungrateful, I am bothered by gifts that make their way into my home – knick-knacks from dinner guests, return gifts at various events or fancy items from generous well-meaning friends. Consequently I have numerous mismatched coffee cups, a selection of teas, an assortment of trays, flower vases of different dimensions and ill-fitting sheets that don’t match any of my beds.

In the days leading up to Diwali, during the annual house cleaning ritual, I find myself drowning in trivial objects, clothes of the wrong size (or taste) and some expensive items that I never use (like perfume). It’s rude to refuse gifts and it’s painful to get rid of them. Perhaps Marie Kondo can help me out here!

Sparking frustration

Applying the Konmari technique of holding an object to see if it ‘sparks joy’ as a way to decide whether to keep or let go of the object seems like a good way to start. Except that it is too tedious. And leads to decision fatigue, something that most of us are familiar with.

Full disclosure – I am guilty of having given thoughtless gifts in the past but in recent years, I have become more mindful. Before buying anything, I ask myself if this item would be useful to the recipient. It seems a bit utilitarian but in general I find that items that have practical use tend to be deployed for its intended use until they break, wear out or become obsolete and therefore are more memorable. 

For a friend who is a coffee connoisseur, I have bought coffee from my travels to Tanzania and Indonesia, knowing that she will savor the flavors as she sips her favorite brew. I have given clothes outgrown by my child to a friend with a younger child not because she couldn’t afford them but because her child hated shopping and this simple act helped us both and the planet as well. 

But not everything I give serves a practical purpose. There’s always room for beauty. 

Room for Beauty

I love buying and receiving fresh flowers that brighten up my living space. Flowers remind me to pause and appreciate the bounty of nature. A few weeks ago a friend proudly showed me a flourishing money plant on her balcony. She had received a tiny sapling from me during the Covid years. The sight of the thriving plant wrapped around her railing filled me with joy. 

When I visit new moms, instead of buying baby stuff, I prefer to give baby books to track the infant’s early years and recently I gifted a book about mindful practices for new mothers. Among the most fun aspects of 2023 for me has been the opportunity to use my newly developed skill in crochet to create handmade gifts such as baby blankets and little hats. Gift certificates for massages, trial sessions for various activities are also things that are functional, relevant and note-worthy.

Decluttering, downsizing, death cleaning

Much of what I have been thinking lately about giving and receiving gifts has been triggered by a wonderful book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. While the title may indicate otherwise, the content of the book is far from morbid. 

Magnusson’s mother left notes on various objects indicating what she wanted done with many of her things – give to a museum, return to the original owner, donate to charity. These notes, even if not addressed specifically to her, consoled her. 

As she describes the process of death cleaning in the friendly manner of an older relative, I felt as if she was holding my hand while I wondered what to do with material possessions that I struggle with – photographs from my early years, letters from my parents, my mother’s jewelry and the stuff I have accumulated during my years on earth.

Reading Magnusson’s book has lightened the burden of my possessions that usually hang around me like a heavy veil if not a boulder on my shoulders. And helped clarify a fundamental question for this season of gifting.

Instead of asking whether this gift will be useful to the recipient, I should gauge if it will add to the already long list of things that will need to be dealt with at the time of death cleaning, either by the recipient or their family.

I don’t know about Marie Kondo but I know my mother would approve. So would Mother Earth.

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Unsplash

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...