Unintentional Gifts

Hands holding gift


(The Best Gifts are Often the Ones You Don't Know You're Giving)

You never see them coming. You didn’t ask for them. The giver hadn’t planned to give them. But there they are—unintentional gifts. What are they? They take different forms. A simple act of kindness. A few words of encouragement. A friendly gesture. A warm smile. A reassuring touch. An unexpected compliment. An uplifting conversation. Welcome advice. They happen naturally—in a spontaneous moment.

I remember when I was considering building a new home many years ago. I was caught in a “should I or shouldn’t I” moment. Interest rates were changing every day and I needed clarity regarding the impact of these rates on my mortgage. A coworker and friend, Lisa, stopped by my office that afternoon regarding another matter. In the course of our conversation, I shared my concern. After a short discussion she said, “I have an idea. Can I use your computer?”

I rolled back my office chair so she could access my computer. She didn’t ask to sit in my chair, instead, took a knee alongside my low keyboard and quickly crafted a complicated Excel spreadsheet that allowed me to interchange variables—down payments, interest rates, and mortgage durations. In just a few minutes, she had created a tool to simulate multiple scenarios for two different homes—so in the midst of volatile interest rates and down payment options, I could clearly “see” the impact on my mortgage payment on either home.

Could I have done this myself? Possibly, but not at warp speed. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, Lisa used her skills to help me and she hadn’t “intended” to do this when she stopped by my office. Unintentional gifts.

As I write this newsletter, believe it or not, I’m in a long, slow-moving Drive Thru line at Starbucks. A notebook lies in my lap, a pen in my right hand scribbles notes, my left hand holds the steering wheel and my credit card. As I roll up to the sales window, I ask the barista, “Will you put the bill for the person in the car behind me on my card?” She smiles, nods, and rings up my new total. When she hands me my coffee she says, “That’s nice. This will start a chain reaction.” When I drove to Starbucks, I didn’t “intend” to buy coffee for the stranger behind me—it was spontaneous. Unintentional gifts.

A few months ago, two friends of mine, who don’t know each other, Dan and Dave, purchased five books for me they thought I would enjoy reading. They were right. I've read two of them already. Great books. Unintentional gifts.

My wife, Karen, knows how much I love buying pens. It’s a thing. Makes sense. What writer doesn’t enjoy writing with a new pen? Months ago, she bought herself a new pen she absolutely loves. One morning she left the pen unguarded on the kitchen table where I could easily confiscate it. Alongside this fine writing instrument was a two-sentence note. I read the first sentence. At a glance, it sounded like a warning: “Jim, this is my favorite pen.” I paused. The second sentence cut through my heart. “I bought one for you.” Unintentional gifts. (I saved the note in my “Memories” file.)

These gifts are all around us. They’re often spontaneous. They’re usually not material things. Many times, the giver is unaware they’re bestowing them. You don’t expect them. Yet, after you receive them, your life is a little bit richer.

Two weeks ago, when I was cleaning out a drawer, I found the Excel spreadsheet Lisa designed for me. Today, seventeen years after building my home, I’ve often reflected on the moment she knelt and built it for me. At the time, Lisa had no idea that almost two decades later Karen and I would still be grateful for her unintentional gift.

I guess it’s true, some of the best gifts in life are the ones you don’t know you’re giving.


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