Month: December 2003
The great darkness of a northern winter has settled over our far corner of Minnesota. It always fascinates me to watch the world through thin light and a palette of greys and blues. It evokes a meditative distance even as the cold enforces a feeling of immediacy.
I don’t think it is possible to overemphasize the power of the land and the weather to shape our characters, and it is this, more than any cultural affinity that draws me to Native American reality. I truly believe that we are formed by the great forces that surround us, and all those who live in the presence of the same forces begin to have certain affinities of character.
I once wrote about this in a terribly misunderstood book entitled, A Haunting Reverence: Meditations on a Northern Land. I had wanted to reveal the character of the land on which I live by offering metaphoric glimpses and meditations of the people and places that it contains. I was trying to do the same for the West Coast in Road Angels: Searching for Home on America’s Coast of Dreams. But it, too, was misunderstood and seen as chronicle rather than metaphoric exploration of the spirit of place.
We are so trained to do cultural analysis and assessment, and so poorly prepared to listen to the poetry of space and place. But these are the things that are going to help us make this American continent our spiritual home rather than simply a set on which we play out our individual dreams of personal betterment.
I hope this winter turns each of you inward a bit, and brings you closer to friends, family, and the land on which you live. Hearing the silences, sensing the timbres, seeing the colorations of the heart are the secret truths that give life depth and meaning.
If I don’t write again before the end of the holidays, my best to all of you. Care for those around you and hold them close. It is, as always, a good time to be alive.
Happy approaching holidays, everybody.
The other day I was contacted by some people regarding Letters to My Son, my literary firstborn, published over a decade ago.
I began paging through it to see how it felt after all these years. In the process, I came across the chapter entitled “The Miracle of Giving,” and it struck me that it would be a good piece to place in the weblog as a kind of Christmas greeting to all of you who take the time to glance at this odd little corner of the web.
It still holds up after all this time, and there isn’t much in its sentiments that I would change. I hope you find it meaningful or, at least, enjoyable.
The Miracle of Giving
As I write this, Christmas is approaching. It is my favorite time of the year. For this one brief season we count our money not to measure our own security, but to see how much we can give. For this one season we look to make others happy and to find our joy in the happiness they receive.
How simple a lesson, and how quickly forgotten.
Almost as quickly as the day ends, we once again become takers, measuring our happiness by what we can gain for ourselves. Just days before, we were valuing our lives by the joy we could bring other people. Suddenly, we are back to the practical business of assessing all our actions by how they will benefit us.
What a sad transformation. How can we forget so quickly? Giving is one of our most wonderful and beneficial acts. It is a miracle that can transform the heaviest of hearts into a place of warmth and joy. True giving, whether it be of money, time, concern, or anything else, opens us. It fills the giver and warms the receiver. Something new is made where before there was nothing.
This is what we have such a hard time remembering. We instinctively build our lives around getting. We see accumulation – of status, of money, of recognition – as a say of protecting ourselves and our families, or as our due for being hard working members of society. Little by little, we build walls of security around ourselves, and we begin to understand the good things in our lives as the things we can lose. Giving becomes an economic transaction – what I give away must be subtracted from who I am – so even the smallest gifts are weighed on the scales of self-interest.
Even when we reach out and give, we need the return of being noticed and praised, so our hearts are really motivated by the praise we will be getting, not by the pure joy of opening to the needs of another. We are locked in a prison of our own self-interest, and we are blind to the fact that our real growth and happiness would be better served by the very actions we resist performing.
The only way to break out of this prison is to reach out and give.
Each Christmas I rent a Santa Claus outfit and go out on the streets, just to teach myself this lesson anew. In that Santa suit, there can be no subtle playing for self-congratulation or benefit. No one knows who I am. I am simply Santa, the man who gives.
I go into nursing homes, grade schools, hospitals. I stop and talk to kids in parking lots and bring presents to people who need them. Parents pass me notes and make requests, some wanting me to reassure their children of the reality of Santa, others just wanting me to pay attention to their child.
One time a Jewish family took me aside and asked me to speak to their little boy. He was the only Jew in his kindergarten class. He though Santa wouldn’t care about him because he was Jewish, so he was afraid to come forward when Santa came into his room. I sat with him and his parents and we talked about Hanukkah and giving, and in the end he gave me a hug and said he wouldn’t be afraid anymore. It may have been strange theology, but it was good humanity.
Being Santa costs me money, time, and no small amount of grief – one time two young kids ran a stop sign and banged their car into mine, and I couldn’t bring myself to turn them in, because how can Santa press charges on Christmas Eve? But despite every inconvenience that it involves, I would not give up playing Santa for anything. I receive too much in return.
People who are focused on getting can never understand this. They might think that what I do is praiseworthy. They might even say, “That must make you feel good.” What they don’t understand is that it is beyond feeling good; it is creating good. It is bringing good into the world where before there was nothing.
Giving is a generative act. When you give of yourself, something new comes into being. Two people, who moments before were trapped in separate worlds of private cares, suddenly meet each other over a simple act of sharing; warmth, even joy, is created. The world expands, a bit of goodness is brought forth, and a small miracle occurs.
You must never underestimate this miracle. Too many good people think they have to become Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer, or even Santa Claus, and perform great acts if they are to be givers. They don’t see the simple openings of the heart that can be practiced anywhere with almost anyone.
Try it for yourself. Do it simply if you like. Say hello to somebody everybody ignores. Go to a neighbor’s house and offer to cut the lawn. Stop and help someone with a flat tire.
Or stretch yourself a bit. Buy a bouquet of flowers and take it to a nursing home. Take ten dollars out of your pocket and give it to someone on the street. Do it with a smile and a lilt in your step. No pity, no hushed tones of holy generosity. Just give it, smile, and walk away.
Little by little, you will start to understand the miracle. You will start to see into the unprotected human heart, to see the honest smiles of human happiness, and you will be able to see humanity in places you never noticed it before. Slowly, instinctively, you will start to feel what is common among us, not what separates and differentiates us.
Before long you will discover that we have the power to create joy and happiness by our simplest acts of caring and compassion. You will see that we have the power to unlock the goodness in other people’s hearts by sharing the goodness in ours.
And, most important, you will find the other givers. No matter where you live or travel, whether you speak their language or know their names, you will know them and become one with them, because you will recognize each other. You will see them in their small acts, because you will recognize those acts, and they will see you in yours. And you will know each other and embrace each other. You will become part of the community of humanity that trusts and shares and dares to reveal the softness of its heart.
Once you become a giver, you will never be alone.