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November 15th, 2019
As the old saying goes: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
The saying is anachronistic to be sure since we just don’t use horses anymore. But the lesson remains.
Historically, the reason why you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth is because the teeth of a horse change in appearance with reliable consistency as the horse ages. To look a gift horse in the mouth is to check the age of the horse that is being given to you as a gift. The practical value of a horse in this circumstance declines with age. Simply put, a young horse is a lot stronger and therefore more useful than an old horse. The modern equivalent would be to look up an item on amazon to see how much someone spent on the gift they gave you.
It’s rude, and that should be immediately evident, but there is an even deeper and more insidious problem with this urge and behavior.
The logic of looking a gift horse in the mouth seems that it’s to determine as soon as possible just how much you are gaining. But the point is more subtle. The age and true value of a horse will inevitably be obvious with time, so why the urgency to look a gift horse in the mouth immediately upon receiving the gift? The real impulse powering things here is the desire to know what someone else has deemed appropriate to give to you. In essence it’s to see how much value someone else sees in you. We give the most valuable gifts to those we value the most, and this trend decreases until we end up at the absolute minimum amount of charity that we’d give to some stranger or enemy. So to look a gift horse in the mouth is to be curious about how someone else sees you, and how much they value you.
By looking gift horses in the mouth, you determine your own value through the eyes of others.
This is very dangerous, especially if you believe it. It’s easy to imagine a bratty kid opening up a gift and looking at the parent, or relative or friend who gave it and saying quite cruelly: is this all I’m worth to you?
What’s so dangerous about this perspective isn’t it’s rudeness or cruelty, but what it indicates about how a person determines their self-worth. Such a bratty teenager, or anyone who is overly concerned about the worth of the gifts they receive is getting their cue about self-worth from the rest of the world. Such a person’s sense of self-worth is externally determined.
This is a dangerous step in the direction of victim mentality, which is marked by an overwhelming concern with how external forces have been unjust, cruel and painful. This overwhelming concern generally gives rise to a feeling of helplessness which inhibits a person’s agency and prohibits any meaningful action that might make their situation better.
This belief that self-worth is externally determined unseats personal agency and gives up control of one’s circumstance to the randomness of fate.
To look a gift horse in the mouth is either a step in this direction or it’s a subtle sign that someone has given up some personal agency.
The quintessential gift horse is the life we have been given. Almost everyone can bemoan the misfortune of not being born to wealthier, more intelligent parents in a country with better infrastructure and opportunity. This is looking the gift horse in the mouth, and being disappointed with what you find.
But let’s flip this whole situation inside-out and start with an unexpected question:
do you like playing games that are too easy?
No, no one does. Where’s the zest if it’s too easy? Too easy means boring.
Let’s say life is a simulation - a game of sorts. What does it say to be handed a life that is fit with every luxury and a seamless stream of easy opportunities? This would mean that your game is on ‘easy’ mode. The less luxury you’re born with and the more obstacles you face mean that your game is on a harder mode.
Now here’s the vital question:
In order to thrive, which version of the game requires more growth, accountability, ingenuity and use of personal agency?
The harder one. The harder life requires a person to be more than their circumstances imply in order to thrive.
Most importantly, difficult beginnings have a greater potential for adventure and growth. The person who rises from a lower circumstance walks upon a deeper foundation of insight, knowing intimately a larger expanse of what it means to be human, and this toolkit affords ways of thinking that can reach far beyond those who were not so fortunate to have such misfortunes to overcome.
[The astute reader might realize that the title stems from J.D. Salinger’s final story in the collection Nine Stories, a story entitled ‘Teddy’. The main character Theodore (whose name appropriately means ‘gift from god’) notes to himself at one point that Life is a Gift Horse.]