Philosophy and gifts

Bill Hughes was a scientist and an engineer. He served as the dean of an engineering school and long after he had retired formally he served as a consultant on engineering projects all over the world. I used to visit him in his home. Upstairs he had a study with an entire wall of whiteboards upon which were complex mathematical formulas. Sometimes I would have him explain a bit of what was there to me. He would always add a story about the person who was trying to solve the problem. Once, in the midst of a discussion about alternate sources of energy to avoid using so much fossil fuels, I said to him, I wish someone had written an introductory book about the nature of energy, a sort of “Energy 101” for lay people. He went into a closet and came out with a copy of a book he had written that was literally titled, “Energy 101.”

In addition to his curiosity and pursuit of science and mathematics and engineering, Bill was interested in spirituality. He wrote several booklets under the nom de plume, Lewis Chase. The name was chosen in honor of his grandfathers. He was quite knowledgeable about his ancestors and his genealogy. At one point in his life he had developed an interest in Erasmus studies and had read a significant number of books by and about the 15th century Dutch philosopher and Christian humanist. Erasmus wasn’t he center of any disciplined study that I had done, but I read a couple of his writings and, after Bill’s death, received several Erasmus books from Bill’s widow. I enjoyed reading them especially because they had penciled notes by Bill in the margins.

There are a lot of famous quotes of Erasmus that have become popular. “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.” “the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.” Erasmus, however, remains in the background of my thought. I know a little bit about him and his thought and reading him provides a connection with a friend who I still miss years after his death.

Yesterday we did some shopping in downtown Rapid City. We parked our car by the federal courthouse, where there are some two-hour parking places without meters. From there we walked to Main Street Square and went to the bookstore and the toy store. We checked out a tea and spice shop and made a few Christmas gift purchases. When we got back to our car, we had walked almost a mile, a bit short of our usual daily stroll. We probably walked less than if we had gone to the mall or to another popular shopping area in our city. Still, people will complain about downtown parking. I fail to see the problem. There are always lots of meters available and at $1 per hour parking isn’t that expensive. And, if you don’t mind walking, you don’t have to pay for the parking.

Anyway, we were looking through the bookstore for a few gifts for our grandchildren and other family members and I spotted a book bag with an Erasmus quote on it. The quote was, “Your library is your paradise.” I was tempted to purchase the bag as a gift for our son, who is a librarian. However, the price of nearly $20 slowed me. I have a couple of similar-sized bags that promote the Friends of the Mount Vernon Library - the library where our son is the director. I purchased them for $5 each. Somehow, it seemed wrong to me to spend that amount of money for a book bag, when I could support the library with the purchase of one that cost a lot less. Also, it should be noted, that I don’t remember our son using book bags very much. He has a messenger-style bag that he uses to carry his computer to and from work, and he uses shopping bags when he is out and about, but I’m thinking that the bag with the quote was something that was more attractive to me than it would be for him.

I often have a bit of a problem when shopping for gifts for others. I see something that I would like and assume that the other person might like the same thing. It is a bigger challenge to try to get into the mind of the other person and come up with a gift that is something that the other person would like for themself. That kind of thinking about the other is one of the gifts of Christmas for me. In a way it is easy for our grandchildren. They will often directly tell us what they think they want. Their parents are good at giving us clues as well. And children always need clothes. They grow quickly and the things that fit them last year don’t fit them this year. We try to purchase toys that have some lasting value and that can be played with in many different ways to encourage the natural creativity and curiosity of our grandchildren. I remember when purchasing gifts for our own children was equally easy. Now that our children have become adults, with significant ability to purchase things for themselves, gift buying is a bit of a challenge. They aren’t just younger versions of their parents. The things that we wanted when we were their age may not be what they want.

A bit of philosophy seems to be in order when thinking about gifts for others. Philosophers invite us to slow down and think of meaning that is deeper than just the mood of the present. The Erasmus quote about libraries is very popular these days. You can purchase t shirts and other items with the same quote. Perhaps I’ll find just the right item for our son if I look carefully enough.

In the meantime, I myself received a gift just from the process of shopping. I came home and thought about my friend Bill and all of the things he taught me. I’m still learning. And I know the greatest gifts aren’t items. They are ideas.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!