Holiday Lessons: #2 The Gifts of Giving and Being Gifted

I’m a list maker. Lists are wonderful little gifts to myself costing nothing except the paper on which I write them and the ink used to pen them. I love making lists before I go grocery shopping so I remember to buy what I’m out of, about to run out of,  want to try, or have but it’s on sale so I should get more. I’ll admit that half the time I forget to bring the actual piece of paper on which the list is made when I leave the house, but the act of making the list puts about 80% of what’s on the list into my short term memory so I’m better off than if I didn’t make a list at all. What I forget to buy, I just add to the list for the next shopping trip.

I also love making Christmas lists. Lists of things to do to get ready for Christmas; things to buy for the various Christmas meals; things to make for the various Christmas meals; and events to attend (and things to buy for said events, such as hostess gifts). Checking off each item on the list feels really satisfying. Vacuum. Check. Clean the bathrooms. Check. Check. Check. Nap. CHECK! Each check feels like a gift, maybe an affirmation of my value or at least evidence of my efficiency.

My favorite list, of course, is the gift giving list. I start with the must people: immediate family members and significant others (mine and/or theirs), and close friends for whom I must to get one or more gifts. The must isn’t burdensome; rather, it affirms people’s importance to me and affirms the importance of showing their importance to me by gifting them with something they need or will love. These are the fun gifts to find.

I then add the extra people: people for whom a gift is not required but a little something would be nice. This category includes neighbors, the mail carrier, new business associates. They usually get some kind of fancy, seasonal food item because food is fun but not too personal, it can be shared with others, and it even can be regifted if the recipient doesn’t like it or can’t eat it. In short, food is the gift that keeps on giving.

There also is Santa’s shopping list: gifts for the family’s good girls and boys. My sister and I shop for Santa using Santa’s Christmas money. Santa hates shopping so we’re happy to do the hard work for him.

The one list with which I still struggle is my own wish list. It’s not that I can’t think of things I want for myself or things I need. I can. The problem comes with feeling worthy of asking for presents. It started in college and grew worse as I slogged through my twenties and early thirties. I really took to heart the teaching, “It’s better to give than receive.” I gave generously while rejecting others’ generosity, to the point that I returned at least 1/3 of the presents I received from Santa. I returned them to the places from which they had been purchased, making sure the refund was credited to the purchaser’s credit card. I thought it demonstrated superior humility to demur such largesse.

It’s taken me a long while to put gift giving and gift receiving in perspective. First, I had to put myself in perspective. I’m not any better or worse than anyone else in my family (or in my world). There’s no virtue in rejecting gifts given, even if it’s under the guise of following the teaching of “Better to give than receive.” Rejecting an opportunity to receive really screams lack of gratitude and distorted pride.

I then had to revisit the meaning of the admonition “It’s better to give than receive.” If giving always trumps receiving, what does that say about recipients? That givers trump them? Are recipients or receivers inferior to givers by virtue of their neediness? How can we be givers if there’s no one to receive? How do we become generous in our hearts if we can’t accept the loving generosity of others? If we constantly put ourselves in the position of the giver and eschew the opportunity to receive what is given with love and say, “Thank you,” how can we become truly humble?

Today, I like to say, “Think first of others’ needs and find ways to meet them.” In this there is no hierarchy, no better or worse position, just the reminder that the world does not revolve around me and the goal is to be of maximum service, not to accrue the most for me.

I then say, “It’s best to give humbly and generously, and to receive humbly and generously.” I don’t like to set up one position as superior to another. We have to be both giver and receiver if we are to fulfill our human potential, if we are to live in right relation with one another. We can’t claim to be better than others and we can’t act like we are better than others by distorting teachings aimed at opening our hearts and eyes to the majestic equality that binds us one to another.

This holiday, I thought about this: God Himself/Herself is both giver and recipient. God gives us unconditional love (and forgiveness). God gives us our gifts and talents and then guides us to fulfill our potential to do the most good with those gifts and talents in the short time we have in this temporal life. God also accepts our love, our worship, our obedience, our faith. These are our gifts to God. What if God only gave to us and refused to receive the love and obedience and worship and faith we need to cultivate and give to God in order to realize our true potential? We couldn’t be who God means us to be if God didn’t receive our gifts, too. And so to move closer to God and to become more wholly who God means me to be, I have to be humble enough both to give and receive, and in doing so, I gift and am gifted.