A True Christmas Story pt. 2 - A Letter that Says "I love You"
An instance will encourage us to eventually ask ourselves, “what’s the point in all this present business?” Are we really giving eachother a bunch of iPhones for Jesus’s birthday? I doubt it. Sometimes stress can spore up in the holidays like poisonous mushrooms. And for what? Another pair of silk socks and a bologna bluetooth speaker from Brookstone.
As a kid when Christmas was all about the presents, I remember the allure would fade rather quickly after getting that gift I always wanted. My professor in college staying late after class to help me with schoolwork always held a longer impression in me than some gift cards to Best Buy. One time my father wrote me a little note, “thanks for shovelling the driveway. Love, DAD.” I still have that in a box above my dresser. When filing my papers I’ll stumble upon that old note written in highlighter and a tear stains the page again.
Last year, friends of my family decided to drastically change the way they celebrate Christmas. Dawn and Derek’s daughter spent 9 months on a mission trip through 4 different countries. It took a lot of generosity from family, friends and even strangers to make that trip possible. When Christmas came around last year, their family felt a benevolent urge to pay-forward what was so freely given to their daughter.
Dawn told me, “There had to be more to Christmas…….more to buying the gift exchange present for my sister-in-law with the full description of the purse she wanted and the exact shelf it was located on at Macy's.” Many people are choosing to pump the breaks on the consumerist driven holiday. Giving back doesn’t have to be black and white. Creatively, each of us searches for meaning in what we do. A sense of purpose arises from finding a way to help in your own unique way. Rather than taking it full speed to the mall, many are stopping on the way to wrap a little philanthropy into the season.
Dawn and Derek sat down with their kids and all agreed that they preferred to spread kindness rather than exchange gifts. Instead of the gift-hustle, they spend time each Christmas writing letters about all they things they love and appreciate about one another. They look back on these throughout the year, remembering what they mean to their family. This time of the year is great for reminding our loved ones the things we cherish, rather than assuming they already know.
Each character in a handwritten letter resembles the personality of the one who wrote it. When I hold a letter from someone I can hear their voice through the pen stroke. I can see their mannerisms by the way they choose words. Hidden in that letter you see a little piece of their soul. Their temperaments subtly seep through the ink. For a brief moment it seems that distance does not exist. Behind a thin layer of fog they sit and are speaking words off the page.
The money that would have been spent on gifts is redirected into random acts of kindness. Throughout the year, in the most inconspicuous way possible, they lend a kind hand to complete strangers - just like all the complete strangers who helped support their daughter's mission trip. Doing simple things like picking up an older couples tab at a restaurant or filling up someone’s gas tank are the little ways they light up someone’s heart. Derek and Dawn’s family keeps their kindness antennae alert all year around.
There is nothing wrong with buying your friends and families gifts for the holidays. This age-old tradition of showing thoughtfulness by gift-giving has a positive effect on both the giver and receiver. The shift here is that people are thinking outside the typical. Expanding beyond their immediate family and friends, the desire to give spills over into the lives of strangers. But why? Why give to someone who you likely will never see again? What is the point in random acts of kindness to strangers?
When I was 21 I bought a small scooter in southern Arizona, drove it to California and then doubled back to my homeland, Chicago. All while having my good buddy sitting on the back seat the size of a frisbee. We had that special, eclectic look going for us: a couple of thrift-store man purses draped over the sides for saddle bags, 2 skateboards bungee corded to the back, an old ratty tent tied to the frame and a boom box my passenger held on my shoulder for tunes along the highway. Rocking through the Nevada desert to the only station available, playing Miley Cyrus, we chewed sand in our teeth with big grins.
I embarked on that trip with 400 bucks in the pocket of my bandana patched pants. 4 months later on the home-stretch we stopped at a gas station in small town America, Iowa. Only a few hundred miles from home I dug through my slender coin pouch. A lady approached from the side and handed me a twenty dollar bill. All she said was, “I don’t know why but I have a feeling you are going to need this,” and she walked away. That kind lady was right because I ended up not having any money left in my pouch and when we got home that evening, we had 33 cents to spare.
Since my first big adventure almost a decade ago, like Derek and Dawn’s family, I've felt compelled to pay-it-forward. The world is a good place and people absolutely want to help one another succeed. Kindness is a symbiotic process, meaning that as you give you shall receive. When you are solely a taker, always worried about every nickel, dime and favor being returned on schedule, it is hard to feel good about giving. In my experience, giving has come back to me in dividends. Although not always directly from who I gave to, but one way or another the universe makes sure there is balance.
Kindness is a big circle. As you travel around your course, doing kind to others, it touches people’s lives and influences them to be alike. The ripple effect of one considerate action multiplies as it jumps from life to life. Going around your big circle, you overlap other people’s circling paths. A kind act can bump that other person’s course, shifting them forever in how they treat other people. Bump into as many people as you can. Kindness spreads like wild flowers. Since we affect others lives regardless, we can make the decision to do it positively or negatively.
If you keep it all to yourself you will be circling a lonely track never meeting all the wonderful people in this world at the crossroads. I think this is a big reason we give; paths cross and our worlds grow. We push the boundary of our property line of life and permeate into other’s lives. The borders begin to blur and the sense of separation with our fellows begins to fade. You don’t have to worry about it all coming back. Sometimes the payback is feeling closer to others and finding gratitude in witnessing a giving world.
My yoga teacher told me we possess 3 things that can help others: Time, Talent, and Treasure.
However big or small, we can use our fortunes to buy people useful things in order to benefit their situation. Picking up someone’s check or donating money is a way to convert your efforts of hard work into good will. It doesn’t matter if you have a single dollar or a million of them. What matters is the intention behind what you are giving.
Offering another person our talents is another contribution of kindness. We all have some talent or gift; mechanics, art, communication, numbers, physical strength, subject knowledge, being technology savvy and so on. Using our talents is a unique way to be of help. It can be as simple as helping someone change a tire on the side of the road because you have that knowledge and they don’t. It never hurts to ask someone if they need a hand.
It isn’t necessary to have money or skills to give. Your time spent on someone is the ultimate service. Time is our most valuable currency and to spend it on someone else is the greatest gesture of all. Giving someone your time makes them feel deserved and worthy. Even taking a moment to ask about someone’s day and what they are up to in life can have a striking impact. All the treasures and talents in the world could never replace having the time for someone else. Spending a portion of time selflessly rather than selfishlessly is better than anything wrapped in reindeer paper.
I like the idea of the naughty and nice list. And not because it dictates what is bestowed upon me for being a “good boy.” Looking over the past year and chalking up your debts is a great way to grow into a better person. Have you been the kind of person over this past year that you want to be? Chistmas is a wonderful time of the year when everyone is on full charge with cheer and spirit. Almost so jolly that you feel drunk on giving.
But it is good to look at the other 11 months and how we are treating people. That’s what’s enlightening about the list. Seeing other people do wonderful things for each other has inspired me to ask myself what I am capable of doing for others. And then to take it a step further, look at how I can bring that holiday kindness into my life and carry it through the entire next year. I particularly like Derek and Dawn’s idea to give all year around because kindness is needed every day on the calendar, not just hovering around the 25th of December.
Get creative with your holiday cheer. You don’t need to be ascetic and abandon family gifts if that is important to your tradition. Stories like Dawn and Derek are here to push us to keep growing as helpful people instead of ageing into stale redundancies. Freshen up your holiday, do something new and unusual. This doesn’t have to be a time of stress fractures and financial guillotines. The holidays are what we make it.
The best gifts I have ever received are all those selfless things other people have done for me that inspired me to return the deed. They funny thing is, years ago I didn’t even know I wanted that. As a kid I thought I wanted a laptop or new skateboard, but I discovered later what I actually wanted was to give myself to others.