Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Gift of Receiving

What will it be for your darling this year? A diamond necklace? A winter’s retreat to the Caribbean? A dual-bagged vacuum cleaner?

Visitors to The Dog House already know it had better not be the third choice. Someone is doing his—or probably her—best to make sure everyone knows that.

Our society is over-full of platitudes about giving: that this is the season for giving. That it is more blessed to give than to receive. Even the grinch IRS gets into the act, scheduling the end of December as the last chance to give—and be credited for it—in the tax year.

Frankly, I’m not sure those ideals work in our post-giving world. We really aren’t a giving society, anymore. After all, this is the Me generation grown up. Supercharged. On steroids. Remember: now, It’s All About Me.

And “Me” has never been about giving.

It’s all about receiving. Because, after all, I deserve it.

So we move into a culture where the gift-receiver has flexed her muscles, and won’t put up with those lowly gifts beneath her.

Those platitudes about giving worked a whole lot better in a different age. There was a time—of course, I don’t remember it personally—when a Christmas gift really meant something. I suspect it was a time when things were much more scarce than they are today, even though, in our economy, we think we have it bad.

I’m thinking of the classic Laura and Mary stories, the Little House on the Prairie series, where Pa headed into town one Dakota December day, because he had some business at the store. Weather was bad, probably the coldest winter in years, but the calendar reminded him he had to go.

“Go” meant walking there in those times, and somewhere along the way back home, a blizzard struck. Pa hid out in a cave (his only recourse in the face of possibly being frozen to death), and waited for the storm to end. The few groceries he had bought became his food for survival through those days.

Meanwhile, at home, Ma and the girls were certain the blizzard meant the end of Pa. No one could survive outside in a storm like that. Having the loss of a family member is certainly a greater loss than any financial poverty, and though Christmas was upon them, that possibility put their poor surroundings in perspective.

It was with these things in mind that, at the end of the storm with the homecoming of Pa, a surreal sense of miracle mixed with gift-that-no-money-could-buy put a hushed aura around that Christmas celebration. If I remember correctly, the Christmas gifts the children received were something like a penny, a stick of peppermint candy, an orange. Real treats for them, trivial tokens for us. But even for them, gifts brought into perspective by gratefulness for life regained.

In a time when, rather than merely spending money, people spent effort expressing—and meaning it—care for each other, giving took on a larger sense than it does today. Today, we don’t know how to receive, and that lack of knowing casts the giver in an entirely different light. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the meaning of the gift is ascribed by the receiver as much as it is by the giver. For every gift receiver who chooses to trash the gift given, we cheapen the meaning of giving entirely.

If we were all to truly experience deprivation, we would have much greater appreciation for gifts. Gifts used to signify items given that were not deserved, but bestowed out of the largesse (whether by finances or character) of the giver. No one now considers himself or herself to be undeserving. We demand our rights! But when we are full of our rights—full of ourselves—we can no longer receive gifts. We can only receive our due.

I certainly don’t want to wish hardship or deprivation on anyone. But I do wish a spirit of gratefulness on us all. Sometimes, though we don’t see it through our human capacity, God knows what we really need, and the blessing in disguise is the gratefulness we find when we pass through those difficult times we once felt merited our fist-shaking in the face of God.

He gave.

We must learn to receive.

Sometimes, the lesson is hard to grasp.

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