coffee-crystalI once had a friend. I’ll call her Leah.

Leah and I had become friends in the way that great love affairs begin — with immediacy and intensity. I’d never had this kind of friendship before, and it seduced me utterly. We spent more time together in those years than I spend with C now; although C and I live in the same house, we have obligations and responsibilities that keep us occupied outside of our life as a couple.

Leah and I were occupied, but we spent our time occupied with one another. I wore her clothes, and she wore mine. We made one another food. I had never had a sister, but I imagined that to have one would be something akin to what I felt I had with Leah.

Over a year into our friendship, she ended a long-term relationship. I saw her through that break. When she wept one night that she missed his frequent, and usually grand, generosity, I went home and considered what grand gesture I could put forth to show her that she was loved.

I did end up putting forth a grand gesture, albeit one that I couldn’t really afford, financially, at the time. But it began a pattern that intensified whenever I felt our friendship waning, or feared that her love for me wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be; I began to give her gifts. I take pride in giving thoughtful gifts, and these gifts were often extravagant, expensive ones that she couldn’t afford for herself. She said once that the best gifts were the ones that you couldn’t have gotten from anyone else but the giver. I tried to reach that brass ring every time.

Leah wasn’t the only friend of mine who received things from me. Whether I was answering frequent 3AM calls from one friend, whom I couldn’t remember ever asking me how I was doing, or sending cards and treats to a recipient who had never reached out during my half-year of illness, my so-called generosity wore my self-esteem down to a shadow. In England, during a dinner conversation, I finally talked about my gift-giving problem.

“It’s not good for the person getting the gifts, either,” N said. “They usually feel weird getting such extravagant gifts. It creates guilt.”

And that guilt is what makes for selfish generosity. Guilt doesn’t usually happen when the recipient knows that she’s part of an equal friendship — one in which she’s given as much as she’s gotten. Guilt happens when the recipient isn’t, for whatever reason, capable of giving. Which has nothing to do with financial ability, and has everything to do with emotional reserves.

Eventually, Leah and I had a sob-filled conversation in which she told me that she was tired of being the “bad friend.” The one who didn’t give enough, stay in touch enough, remain thoughtful enough. She was angry with me. I was exhausted. We no longer speak.

At this point, I always consider my gift-giving impulses. I ask myself, Am I doing this because I’m feeling insecure about our friendship? Am I doing this for someone who’s truly present in my life? Can I afford, financially and emotionally, whatever it is that I’m about to give?

If the answers are yes, I go ahead and give. And I do give. I am still an excellent gift-giver, if I do say so myself.

Otherwise, it’s just selfish generosity.

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