Holidays 2013: Finding Meaning In What We Already Have

Zen tree

A Zen Holiday Mash Up: How to Give the Gifts You Already Have and Why Material Things Depreciate and Meaning Doesn’t

Hey, good news!: It’s not too late to drive yourself holiday-mad trying to find the perfect gift! Hey, better news: It doesn’t have to be this way. Whether you are a last minute shopper or have been preparing type-A style since the summer, it doesn’t matter.  Stress is wafting through the air along with the sounds of Bing Crosby singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Seeing other people still shopping, watching those last minute ads on tv, we’re transported back to grade school when we thought we had finished a math test, but the smart kids in the front row were still writing feverishly and we figured we must be doing something wrong. Same same. Those shopping-crazed people know something we don’t know— Maybe we should buy that, too— I’ll take three!

I hate it. And I’m not immune. As much as my husband and I have our temperate approach to holiday shopping, trying to preserve a vision of moderation, I can’t escape that soul-crushing message: get more, more, more! Rushing around, our anxiety rising about finding the perfect presents for our loved ones, maybe we’re looking for gifts in all the wrong places. Desperately in search of an antidote, I think I may have found it in my email inbox yesterday.

A friend sent me links to two stories he’d read while procrastinating from his work. Yay procrastination. He said that the two stories weren’t connected, but they’ve stuck together in my head giving me a clear message about the holidays and this is how it goes:

Give (or at least appreciate) the Gifts You Already Have:

The first story was a parable from my friend’s native Afghanistan. A mullah, or religious teacher, goes shopping for a pair of shoes on a street lined on both sides with shoe stores. Going from store to store, he tries on many, many pairs of shoes. None of them feel just right. Exasperated, he tries the very last store on the block. After trying on scores of shoes, he finally puts on a pair and they feel perfect! Relieved, he turns to the shopkeeper and says: “These are perfect, I will take them, how much are they?” The shopkeeper replies: “They are so valuable to you, but they are free.” Confused, the mullah asks how that is possible. “They are the shoes you walked in with,” the shopkeeper replies.

It’s not that I think that we should scrooge-out and dust off our spouse’s old shoes, give them a polish and put a bright red ribbon on a box, and say—Surprise honey! It’s your old cozy loafers! But the point is, maybe the very thing we crave most is re-connecting anew with what we already have. The people in our lives—and yes, maybe the things too—though seen in a new light. How different might it be for all of us, no matter what our age, to go into this holiday feeling full with what we already have, rather than feeling empty, craving what isn’t? What if we took a second to see clearly in our mind’s eye that, truly, the gifts that matter most, we already have in our lives.

How can we do this? Spend time together, and savor it. Give our most valuable gift—our time and attention. Look around at your life—see the potential—pull out some board games, bake those holiday cookies, read together by the fire, build snowmen, sort through closets and bookshelves and make someone else’s day by passing along what you no longer need.  Add music and good snacks and you could just have the most memorable holiday gift. Why? Because this is when good things happen. Maybe your child rediscovers a favorite old book, and you sit as a family and read Good Night Moon to your now teenage kids. Or you find Aunt Florence’s wide-brimmed hat that’s been sitting in the closet for decades. And then you all take pictures with the hat and it is immortalized as the funny hat pictures. These are the moments we remember. And the meaning of these moments only deepens over time as you revisit, embellish and enjoy.

Which brings me to the second story my friend sent me.

A self-proclaimed gold digger writes to a CEO at JP Morgan.  She’s a beautiful 25 year old woman and wants to know how to meet men who earn $500,000 a year the minimum acceptable income for the New York life she imagines having. The CEO is blunt: Although he earns more than $500,000, he would not marry her because, while his wealth would likely only appreciate, her beauty would fade.  It’s not a good trading position.

Can we say ewww? Aside from being grossed out from the question and the answer, not to mention personally affronted as a middle-aged woman trying hard to hold on to the idea as my husband tells me that beauty deepens with age, it made me think of the concepts of appreciating and depreciating—terms that only enter my mind when doing taxes with my accountant.

While material gifts depreciate over time— the toys, the clothes, the cars, etc.—the value of our experience with each other only deepens. You know this to be true.  People are the very best investment.

Savoring Experiences That Appreciate Over Time

Taking these two stories together—that my friend insists had no connection—I am going to hold off on any more buying.

How do we incorporate this new take on the holidays with our family? It’s all in the presentation. If we go in saying—this is how it’s going to go down: it’s a gift-reduced Christmas, be happy, well, that’s like the old Bill Cosby line of how he was called to the supper table as a kid: “Sit down and eat your suffer.” So, just think in your head—this is the antidote to our overly-materialistic, spiritually-compromised commercially driven, spoil your loved ones holiday pressure, but say out loud: We love you guys, and we want to spend time together.

Make it collaborative—share the joy—have your family make their “experiential” wish list—things they’d like to do together.

If there is grumbling, and there may well be, don’t get mad, this is new. There’s a learning curve in savoring experience, but it’s pretty steep. After a few snowball fights, hot chocolate chip cookies out of the oven, and your child (and your inner child, too) will begin to get it. And love it. Then, have every one put on their old cozy slippers, smile and think—hey, you know what? These feel pretty darn good.

Happy simple holidays to all.


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tamar chansky phd

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