The Gift of Self

Every year, countless articles and TV spots spring up advising lovers on how to find the ideal gift for their Valentines. Most of these are really just advertising in a not-very-subtle disguise, but even those that aren’t tend to cast the net into the shallows. They assume that the gift giver is looking to present his beloved with a modestly thoughtful gift that will serve to placate the idols of Romance for another year: a gift which can be procured during lunch hour and which says, “Please don’t divorce me for another 365 days.”

Fair enough. People are busy, and in a good marriage, a Valentine’s gift is often just a small, thoughtful formality, like a good-morning kiss as you leave the door.

Occasionally, though, something special is required. Perhaps the ring is not yet locked upon the finger, or perhaps it has become a little loose these days, or maybe this is simply the year to make a special restatement of your love. Whatever the case may be, this article is about how to produce a Valentine’s Day gift that is truly spectacular, on any budget or no budget at all.

To begin, let’s step back and ask what the nature of a gift is and why gifts are important in the first place. A gift is an icon. It is an image of the gratuitous love which the Father showers on creation, a reminder of the abundance of unmerited goodness which is presented to human persons from the moment we receive the marvelous and wholly improbable gift of life, throughout all of the countless occasions of grace that pepper our lives, right up to the gift of eternal life, which was purchased for us on the cross.

Gifts cannot be earned. They come in unexpected forms, from unpredictable quarters: Like the Holy Spirit, no one knows where gifts are coming from or where they are going. They flash out like lightning, illuminating the truth about the nature of human existence, and sending off sparks of meaning and beauty into the world.

All gifts serve the same basic function: They enmesh the human person within a web of relationships, the communio personarum which is essential to the meaning of human life. In this communion, the individual is drawn into the “image and likeness of God,” an image which is both unity and plurality. The ordinary gifts which we are familiar with giving and receiving derive their significance from the relationships within which they are given.

The essence of a good gift lies, then, in bringing all of these meanings to the fore. When the gift becomes a unique icon of the relationship in which it is given, it ceases to be merely a thoughtful present, and it becomes an archetypal symbol, the sort of thing that has the power to transform and illuminate a relationship and which will be remembered for years to come.

Such gifts propel a relationship forward. They can serve to mediate forgiveness, to re-solidify broken bonds, to strengthen those which are already strong, to redefine or redirect attention within a relationship, and to elucidate in concrete form that which binds people together in love.

There are five dimensions to the kind of gifts which are able to work these miraculous effects. First, a gift should communicate a specific set of meanings which are appropriate to the relationship in which it arises.

Flowers, for example, used to have a set of meanings attached to them so that a bouquet could be a form of visual-symbolic poetry, capable of expressing a highly nuanced message from the lover to the beloved. Although flowers have almost entirely lost their significance in the commercial age, there are innumerable other ways to convey meanings through gifts. The key is to have a strong sense of precisely what is going to be communicated.

Is this gift a message of appreciation? A celebration of common interests? An apology? An act of hope and faith? A commitment or recommitment? An expression of understanding? Remember that the more levels of meaning that a gift is able to simultaneously communicate the more profound its effects will be.

A gift should also be personal. Most people take into account the fact that a gift should reflect the individuality of the person receiving it, that it should address her interests, desires and hopes. The ideal gift should also communicate the personality of the giver and the nature of the relationship between the two, so that when the lover and the beloved are apart the gift will serve as a concrete symbol of their union.

Unique gifts are always more valuable than mass-produced ones, because all of the gifts which God gives to mankind are utterly unique. This is a God who takes the time to splash a slightly different pattern over the back of every individual beetle, who bothers to craft each snowflake into a tiny, ephemeral masterpiece.

Gifts that are handmade, custom-ordered or somehow individualized have the capacity to be treasured not only for their symbolic value, but also for their existence as a singular work of art which expresses the profundity of the relationship.

Truly great gifts should also contain some element of sacrifice, for the perfection of all gifts is the sacrificial gift of blood and flesh which Christ poured out from the cross.

In romantic relationships especially, it is important to express the willingness to accept genuine hardship for the sake of the beloved. Gifts which involve a great deal of effort, feats of bravery or self-denial have always been an important part of romantic literature, because they symbolically reassure the beloved that the love is not fickle, that it will be reliable in times of trial, and that it is the sort of love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Finally, the most perfect gift is the treasure of oneself. Romance stories traditionally involve the hero going forth on a quest wherein he gains a prize which can be presented to the beloved. The value of the prize lies primarily in the fact that the hero must become heroic, must make himself into a gift truly worth giving, in order to obtain it.

Gifts which include an element of self-improvement offer the beloved not merely a valuable memento or a pleasant experience, but also a permanent change for the better. If the making of a gift requires the giver to learn a new skill, the gift increases its value because it contains within itself the promise that the lover will now be capable of these feats when called upon to perform them in the future. Similarly, a gift can involve the reformation of the self: giving up a bad habit, making a commitment that will mean spending more time with the beloved, repairing relationships with children or in-laws.

Through such gifts, the lover demonstrates a willingness to truly acknowledge the treasure which has been received in the gift of the other, a willingness consummated in the desire to become ever more worthy of the love which they share.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at

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