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  • Carla Keen

The joyful obligation (or why you should look a gift horse in the mouth*)

There is an episode of Big Bang Theory called The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis, where Sheldon receives a Christmas gift from Penny. He says, ‘You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation’, and he spends the rest of the episode trying to guess the financial value of the unknown gift so that he can reciprocate appropriately.



While Sheldon's behaviour seems unconventional, all his non-neurotypical brain has done is draw attention to one of the unspoken rules around giving and receiving gifts - the obligation to reciprocate.

// SEED involves an exchange. I send the participant a box, which could be framed as a form of gift, and in return, there is the expectation that the participant will reciprocate by being open to the experience (or to ‘give good audience’ as Rachel Zerihan puts it),

Then, there is also the ‘joyful obligation’ to look after the seeds. I call it a joyful obligation because while technically a chore or another thing on a to-do list, it is one that also gives back in being therapeutic and eventually providing herbs for cooking with. And so, the initial gesture becomes part of a chain of gift giving.


Marcel Mauss writes about this form of obligation in his essay The Gift and explains the Maori term ‘hau’, which is the spirit of a gift. The idea is that gifts contain a part of the giver (which is the hau), and by accepting a gift, you accept a part of the giver as well. You carry this part with you until you reciprocate the gesture, and in Maori society, the hau attempts to find its way back to the initial giver, thereby closing the circle of gifting. // SEED is a deliberate recognition of the value and purpose of gift giving, and the nature of the ‘joyful obligation’. As for Sheldon, he got something that money couldn’t buy: a napkin used by Leonard Nimoy. *This is an English proverb which comes from the idea that you could tell how old a horse was by looking in its mouth. Therefore, you could tell the value of that gift and to check would be extremely rude. Therefore, the expression ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth’ means appreciate the thing you have been given.



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