The Heart of Giving or Giving With Heart

Last night as Steve and I sat together on the couch, watching TV I was surprised by my emotional reaction to the advertisements for Christmas shopping.  Instead of the reaction I’m sure the advertisers were hoping for (“oh boy, that looks wonderful”,) I found myself annoyed and even a wee bit disgusted.

 Please don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday season and I love giving gifts.  There is something lovely about the web of giving and receiving that is created as we exchange gifts with family and friends.  I remember learning in a college anthropology class about the concept of potlatch: a gift-giving festival that is an important part of the economic systems of some indigenous peoples.  The Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza season in the United States feels to me like a giant potlatch:  with each present given and received a web of connection and reciprocity is created that binds us together as a community.  It nurtures and delights us.

So why was I so annoyed by the advertisements?  It is not simply that I object to the commercialization of holidays that “should” be a spiritual time in our lives, -although that is something to be concerned about.  Perhaps it is the way the advertisements try to tug at our heartstrings with images of happy families.  Perhaps it is about the assumption that we will spend large amounts of money when so many families are struggling to get by. Perhaps it is the implication that only costly gifts will make the grade.

I think, however, it is mostly about the overwhelming nature of the sensory assault; the constant stream of images, music and other messages that all are focused on the spending of money.   I remember reading a description of a child in the 18th century receiving an orange, a simple orange, for Christmas and the utter delight that brought him.  Other stories I’ve read describe children savoring a single book or toy for a whole year.  While I know full well that past centuries were often times of great hardship, violence and oppression, and I certainly do not take lightly the many blessings of our modern life, I do wonder if we have perhaps lost, well, a sense of wonder.  Surrounded by so much, so many things, we are on sensory overwhelm.  Things need to be bigger, brighter, faster, more intense to break through the haze. We seem to have lost our ability to feel gratitude and joy in a simple orange or a single toy.

I found myself particularly annoyed at the ads for electronics.  Having recently purchased several new gadgets for myself as well as various family members (and I totally admit to having fun with them and finding them amazing), I am very conscious of the way they are designed to be obsolete within a few years.  I feel anger at the constant drip drip-drip of pressure to purchase the newest, next best thing. How did we get from the joy of an orange to a sense that if we haven’t spent several hundred dollars we are somehow getting it wrong?

 I suspect that my distress is heightened by the combination of internet and television.  The exhortations to spend more and more, faster and faster come from all sides:  email, Facebook, television all constantly urging us on to the next best thing.  And I find myself wanting to hold up a hand and say, “stop, just stop, let it be, let us figure it out for ourselves.”

So where does this leave me (us) as we try to negotiate this time of year with heart and soul?  It is too easy to say “we must take back the true spirit of the holidays,” although that is certainly a worthy goal.  I think, as with so much, the answer lies in self-awareness and making conscious choices; asking ourselves questions like:

What kind of gift giving is meaningful to me and my family?

What is the part of this season that means the most to me?

How do I bring my own spirituality to this time of year?

What brings joy and comfort to my family, my community, our world?

In his most recent blog post Rick Hanson talks about the power of owning the freedom to say no to the pressures and behaviors that take us away from our core essence.

Compulsive holiday spending can certainly be one of those behaviors, and, at least for me, I find that when I fall into that kind of compulsive behavior I end up feeling worse, not better.  There is a saying in sales which often holds true in the therapy office as well:  “less is more.”  Perhaps this can apply to holiday giving as well.  That which is simple but true to who we are holds more grace than the shiny gadget that will be over and done with all too soon.

So, as with so much, the answer for me involves taking the time to center ourselves and lay claim to that which is most important to us. This morning I sat down with a cup of coffee and some Navajo flute holiday music on the stereo and started writing holiday/Christmas cards.  And I felt content thinking of friends and family far away who have so enriched my life.  So here and now I reclaim this time of year for my soul:

Tonight we will go down to the river walk and enjoy the luminaires in the crystal cold night while we listen to a choir of bell ringers play holiday music

I will make hot chocolate and play the Christmas music I like, and turn off the music that annoys me

I will give gifts that speak to who I am and who the recipient is and try not to worry about how much or how little I’m spending

We will decorate the house with gusto, and enjoy baking and eating and spending time with friends and family

We will watch schmaltzy movies and sing off key and have a great time

We will open our hearts and our wallets to those in need, and mostly we will love and we will laugh as take joy in the beauty of the desert draped in snow

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

 I would love to hear your thoughts on what you hope to do to make the holidays meaningful for you.  Please add your comments below and I will respond.

Check out the Useful Dialogues page for several holiday-related conversations (Gift – giving/receiving, and Holiday Traditions) from my book-in-progress “Coming Home to the Heart of Your Relationship:  Conversations that take your relationship to where it was meant to be.”


Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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