Every year, my sister, Kayla, and I go through the same drill.
She asks what I want for Christmas. I say, “nothing.” She says, “seriously, what do you want?” And I say, “Seriously, I don’t want anything.” And she says, “Well I’m gonna buy you something regardless so it might as well be something you want!” And on it goes…
For a few years, I avoided the situation by actually telling her what I both wanted and needed — mechanical pencils. The first time I told her this, she thought I was joking and was all set to jump right into our usual back and forth. But I finally convinced her that, no, this was not a joke. I am constantly losing my pencils and always need more. So, for a good three or four years, my sisters (not just Kayla, but my older sister, Elease, and even my sister-in-law, Ellen) bought me packages of Bic mechanical pencils and I would be all set till the next Christmas season rolled around and I would, once again, be in short supply of my favorite writing utensil.
[sidenote: While packing this summer, I discovered where a vast majority of those missing pencils went — inside my books. See, I always read with a pencil in my hand, because I’m forever marking up everything I read. I will also use that pencil to hold my place in the book when I set it down. The problem, as some of you have no doubt learned, is that I never finish books. I get about two or three chapters in before moving on to something else. Which means that the pencils stay, hoping in vain for the moment of my return, when I would find them waiting, faithfully, ready to remind me where I left off.]
At any rate, having no shortage of pencils this time around, when Kayla started down the usual what-do-you-want-for-Christmas route, I reverted back to my old pattern of telling her nothing. And I should be clear — I don’t do this to be obnoxious. I do this because I literally do not want anything for Christmas. Why this is so hard to believe I will never understand.
Nevertheless, she kept bugging me, and started hinting that the rest of the family was getting antsy about it, too, so I decided yesterday to try something I had done during undergrad. I sent an email to the family with a short list of not-for-profits that I hoped they would donate to in lieu of purchasing me a gift.
Now, I’m not doing this because I think I’m better than anyone else. I’m not trying to be some self-righteous, look-at-how-selfless-I-am, holier-than-thou liberal. I’m not trying to earn any stars in my heavenly crown. I’m simply acknowledging the plain fact that, when it comes to material things, I am, quite frankly, in no way lacking. Sure, there are things I wish for, some things that need replacing, some things I’d rather not go without. But I remain reliably fed, clothed, and sheltered, without fear of losing any of those things (the looming breakdown in civil society notwithstanding). And for those reasons, I really can’t fathom actually giving people a list of items that I expect them to buy for me. Especially items I can readily purchase for myself.
But that’s missing the point, I know. It’s not that I can just buy it for myself. It’s that others want to give it. They derive joy and fulfillment rom the act of giving, and why can’t I just accept that instead of raining on everyone else’s Christmas?
Well, here’s the thing. If I give someone a gift to satisfy my own desire to give, then the giving is about me. And that is wrong. Now, I don’t for a second think that my sister is being a self-centered gift-giver. I know that her giving is motivated by love, and generosity, and a desire to show that she cares about something important in my life, and in the lives of everyone she shops for.
It’s just that, at least in my case, there are other ways of showing that than buying a sweater.
Which, getting back to the point, is why I ask my family to choose a charity to support on my behalf. A gift, at its best and most thoughtful, is simply a way of saying, “I know this is meaningful to you.” And what means the most to me at Christmas is being grateful both for knowing I am not in need and for the opportunity to help those who are.
And in case you were wondering, here is my (very short) list of organizations —
- Monroe County Civic Theater — Bloomington, Indiana’s only all-volunteer community theatre organization, I helped run it for the last two and a half years I lived there, and of all the theatre I did in Bloomington, I am perhaps proudest of what I did with MCCT
- Worldwide Orphans Foundation — Like the name suggests, this organization’s programs are specifically aimed at the needs of orphaned children around the world. In addition to the US, they work in places like Haiti, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and more. I met the founder and CEO of this organization, Dr Jane Aronson, at Thanksgiving; she, and the organization as a whole, do really fantastic work meeting the health needs of orphans, particularly when it comes to things like HIV-treatment (a disease for which orphans are at extremely high risk).
- Doctors Without Borders — One of my long-time, favorite not-for-profits, this organization has become even more vital as it helps lead the way in addressing the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Oh… and lest I be decried a hypocrite for omitting this little detail, I did give in a little and create an Amazon.com WishList, just in case someone in the family still wanted to give something tangible…