Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Accept a Gift

Sherlock always appreciated the Christmas bounty of tissue paper

Now, I am not going into general Buddhist wisdom of the day, which talks about accepting every [obscenity] thing that happens to you as a great blessing that gives you plenty to work with and become wise.  I am really tired of hearing that, and am pretty sure it doesn't apply to my bipolar brain, which has often been given acute depression just because my happy/sad switches are genetically broken.  It's some logical fallacy, I think, to suggest that a depressed mind can be glad to be depressed; clinical depression is a neurochemical disaster one simply endures by eating potato chips and watching old episodes of Gray's Anatomy, and you are not grateful for those things, either.

No, I am not talking about cultivating that dance-with-the-demons wisdom.  I am talking about actual giving and receiving stuff as our biggest consumer holiday is barreling toward us here in America:  Christmas. Which has nothing to do with religion for most Americans today.  My subject is not giving, but receiving gifts with a generous heart.

We get out of the starting gate wrong as middle-class children in America, who are asked by Santa what they want.  Who are encouraged to write to Santa, detailing the list.  Who have seen enough TV commercials to internalize acute desire for some particular toy and begin nagging for it on Black Friday.  Thus is formed the habit of seeing Christmas as the time when you hope to get your heart's desire.  So it has nothing to do with generosity or gratitude; it's a kind of payday in the consumer culture. Though it never works for long.

As for you, a grownup, your heart's desire certainly isn't a hairy angora scarf knitted by Aunt Melba that will shed all over your new mulberry pea coat.  It's so weird, and so huge, this scarf, that at first you didn't even know what it was.  (Sometime, drinking wine with friends, you'll make a sort of funny-ironic story out of this.) It is totally not the right thing for that coat.  And you're allergic to wool, and isn't angora wool? Doesn't she know that? You resent that failure of knowing your needs and taste. You don't wear scarves like that.  It's ugly, it doesn't express your style.  So you say, "Thanks," and toss it aside and let's get on with things.

Now let's turn to the other party in this transaction.

Aunt Melba made this scarf especially for you, with loving memories of you as a child.  It took many hours, something you don't know, since you don't knit, and knitting always looks easy.  She had to work in fits and starts because now knitting makes her arthritic hands ache.  Sometimes she had to tear out rows, and figure out how to get it going right again; her mind isn't as quick as it used to be.  She had to be very dedicated to get it done in time.

She'd been looking forward to this annual visit.  She spent a happy hour picking out a yarn she thought was beautiful and would be warming and remind you of her love for you.  Yarn is not cheap; this yarn probably cost more than the designer scarf that would have pleased you.  And the scarf turned out just perfect, she thought. Your microexpression (a tiny frown of resentment at how wrong this gift is, it will go to the thrift store) does not escape her.  If you were paying attention, her expression would suggest that her heart sank.

Not all gifts are this important.  Suppose you meet with a girlfriend you only lunch with a couple of times a year, though it's an old friendship going way back, and you like each other.  Last summer you picked up a very special beeswax candle at the Farmer's Market, thinking it was just perfect for her; beeswax burns bright and long and has its own delicate natural fragrance. You know she likes to take baths by candlelight. You went to some trouble to wrap it in a nice box with tissue and ribbons. 

She says "Thanks" in an offhanded way.  Okay.  That didn't seem to work.  Then we are on to your gift from her, some bath oil.  Has she forgotten you can't take baths? a deprivation certain health problems brought about.  You thought you complained about it often enough that everybody knew this little bit of hard  luck.  The bath oil seems impersonal, like she was just getting one more gift out of the way.  In fact, is it possible she is just regifting what you gave her last year?  Maybe. You're afraid so.

Now, what do you say, dear?

You say, "Thank you.  This is beautiful."  You look at it.  In even the wrongest gift there is something to appreciate - the color, the packaging, the daintiness of it.  You say so. And lavender, my favorite scent.  

Because, like you, she wants her gift to be appreciated.  The fact that you can't use it has nothing to do with it.  This is not about you getting what you want; this is about the ritual of receiving with gratitude, even if the gift it is a child's wilted bouquet of dandelions.  It is about receiving with the understanding that the gifts you are given have nothing to do with your dreams being fulfilled.  It is ancient ritual, the full circle of giving and receiving.  For that to work, the receiver has to genuinely receive, and be nice.

If you see some Buddhist wisdom sneaking into that, okay, it can't be helped.

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