Last year's anonymous gift giving spree whet the appetite for another go at it this year. Our stated goal was to give to any and everyone we encountered on our walk across Walnut Street Bridge, “just because,” with no strings attached. Our children were eager to get back out there.
Kids thrive on repetition and ritual … they like to “know the ropes,” so to speak; repetition of traditions and life rituals helps to build confidence in a child's ability to handle life; their self-esteem goes up accordingly – so we adults were eager, as well, to provide another opportunity for our children to experience the true meaning of giving.
It was wet and cold and with only a few people brave enough to be out and about – but that did not dampen our little group's spirit. They were ready to play the part of “Santa elves,” as seven year old Reece explained. Instead of sleighs, we loaded down our little red wagons with wrapped gifts, hoping there was something there for everyone we met. We had packed for all ages, gender, and we even packed a few doggie treats for those with pets who dared to venture out for a bit of brisk air and exercise.
It was a flat-out invigorating, inspiring, and all round wonderful experience! I was filled with gratitude by the unabated eagerness our troop of self-assigned “elves” demonstrated as they enthusiastically rifled through their goodies to find the tag describing what was wrapped inside and help them identify the right gift for the people they were gifting – tags read, “girl/boy, age 9 -12,” “child under 3,” “boy, age 5-9, “pet treats,” or “adult man/woman.”
The “elves” were on a mission to be sure that everyone went away with an appropriate-for-them gift of some kind! Upon giving it, one of our 10 year olds would declare in loud proclamation, “These gifts are for you on only one condition, that you give us nothing in return!” Yes, indeed they were getting to experience the unparalleled joy of giving without expectation of getting something back!
Do you realize how rare that is in life?! OR is it just me that thinks so?
A fear-based world generates immediate distrust – even towards those who might want to “give us something.” We have become cynical and expect to be asked for something whenever anyone approaches us. We pull our energies in, look straight ahead, and ignore the outside world, as if we are afraid it will attack or take something away from us. I understand how we have come to live like this … nonetheless, too often, we end up feeling disconnected and alienated from life as a result.
I watched the reaction of those who were approached by our ‘elf brigade' … some people acted as if they did not see or hear our precocious youngsters spreading Christmas cheer … they kept on walking, as if oblivious …. Other people were less subtle about their mistrust. I was prompted to reflect on how many of us fear that to accept something leaves us owing someone something in return; we don't want to feel indebted and so we refuse the gifts that life may have to offer us.
And then there were those approached who refused to accept the gift, expressing their unworthiness or lack of need, as if it was wrong, or they felt guilty, about accepting anything. “After all,” they might say, “I have so much already! This gift needs to go to someone more deserving, to someone who really needs it instead of to me!”
I reflected on how we humans seem to naturally identify ourselves (and others) as either “givers” or “takers.” We appear to live on one side or the other of that line, rarely to cross over to the opposite side. Those who give have difficulty receiving … they feel guilty about it. Perhaps they even feel superior about it. i.e. “I don't need anything you have to offer!” I wonder if they realize how their refusal to receive denies the good feeling and boost in esteem the giver gains from giving a gift to someone who appreciates it? Maybe not. Perhaps it is too easy to go for the feelings of superiority that comes from feeling noble about needing nothing, than it is to notice the unhappy message they send by refusing to receive.
Several times I stepped forward in such moments of gift refusal and explained that the purpose of accepting the gift was to give the children the chance to experience the act of giving.
Funny how few of us really understand that giving and receiving are two parts of the same act … both necessary for completion. Once that was understood people were generally willing to “risk it.” 🙂 When we get stuck on one side of the exchange it throws us off-balance in our relationships with others, and from life in general.
In our culture, we tend to teach our children to be takers. We so love the feeling of giving to them, of doing for them, that we go overboard. We give … give … give … and we laugh off their gifts to us, or tell them to go somewhere and play … we don't want them to think they should have to give us anything … after all we're the parent(s)! It's our job to take care of them!
Parents who are caught in this one sided split between giving/receiving too often pay for it later, when their children, who were never allowed to “give in return” do not KNOW HOW to give … and become frustrated and demanding when others do not give them what they have come to expect to be given. These children come to believe two things from this training to be takers: a.) They believe they have nothing worth giving others, and, b.) they believe others are supposed to give to them. 🙁
The truth is that children are easily overwhelmed with so much receiving … they become numb to it as a result … there can be no appreciation for what they get because there is so much given that it leaves no room for them to dream after something. Instead of learning how to plan for what they want, they learn to manipulate to get others to give it to them instead. Imagine the gifts that comes from the process of learning to set goals and the wonderful experience that comes from working to gift ourselves with something we've wanted and planned for … This is the greatest pleasure we can offer our children – the joy they experience of receiving the gifts they give to themselves through their own efforts.
Without the effort involved in realizing our dreams, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to fully appreciate the gifts that are plopped effortlessly into our laps. Appreciation comes from having to do without something we really want, and it is what sets the stage for Gratitude, that good feeling that comes when we receive something unexpected, or for which we have longed.
Among our pedestrian encounters on that cold day made warm with the spirit of giving, it was relatively easy to tell those who were “used” to receiving, from those who were not. One lady seemed very comfortable with not only receiving gifts, but in asking for more! She was not happy until she had covered every one of her grandchildren whose ages she would call out, as our little elves busily rummaged through their little red wagons to fill her list! The icing on the cake was when our insistent recipient discarded one of the gifts that had been given her, after determining it was not “good enough.”
Hers is a classic example illustrating a different application of the same dynamic described above. In this case, perhaps, the “parent” who fostered dependency by giving handouts may have been the government. When families grow up dependent on outside resources to take care of them they come to expect and even demand that they be given to “because we don't have and you do!” This is the opposite, you'll notice, of the attitude we mentioned in the beginning of those who believe, “I don't deserve to receive because I have so much already…” These two one sided styles of the exchange dynamic often find each other … and the dance begins – one will be the primary (if not, only) giver, and the other will be the one who constantly needs to be given to. It's inevitable. It's nature. It is what is … unless and until we begin to balance that dynamic between giving and receiving within ourselves.
I noticed that giving to those who did not expect it appeared to be the most fun for everyone. These recipients were the ones who beamed with true surprise and delight … some seemed truly amazed by the whole exchange. Their wide-eyed wonder made it all worth while indeed! But then, gratitude has a way of bringing smiles to people's faces … and it was for that – those lit up faces – that we came out on this cold day, pulling our little red wagons, instead of sleighs, and singing out, “merry Christmas” to all we passed. Those wide eyed, beaming faces, was what we wanted our little elf brigade to experience for that is the gift they had come seeking – the gift that comes from giving!
What kind of giver/receiver are you? Do you need to practice giving more with nothing expected in return? Or do you need to practice receiving? Why not take along a few treats today as you move about in the world and share them with unsuspecting strangers with an open heart and give yourself the experience of giving with no expectation in return!
… I think it is definitely a ritual that has come to stay in our family!
Blessings for a sacred season.
I want to thank Kalei Heartland, from N. Mexico, who turned me on to this idea of anonymous gift giving, and has since formed an anonymous gift giving organization: