Wissot: The older we get, the more important giving becomes (column)
I was 11 years old when I first experienced the joy of giving. My parents had rented a summer bungalow three blocks from the ocean in Far Rockaway, Brooklyn. For a boy from the Bronx, getting that close to the water was the equivalent of a vacation on the French Riviera.
I spent that summer collecting discarded soda bottles on the beach. Two cents a bottle was my pay. I used that money to play SkeeBall at the penny arcade on the boardwalk. I loved playing SkeeBall and I saved my winning coupons in the hope I could turn them in for a big prize before the season ended.
The prize I had picked out was an octagon-shaped clock that I wanted to give to my mother. Just before Labor Day, as we were packing to leave, I reached the magic number of 1,200 coupons. My SkeeBall skills had finally paid off.
I can still see the look on my mother’s face when I handed her the clock — surprise, excitement, delight. She hung the clock on a wall in our living room and didn’t take it down until I was well into my 30s.
I now know the feeling she had. The only gift I want from my own daughters is to be remembered and appreciated. I hang that thought in my heart and not on a wall. In Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s story, “The Giving Tree,” a young boy goes from childhood to adulthood asking the tree for everything it had to give him from its apples, to its branches, to its trunk, until the tree is reduced to a stump. The boy, now an old man, tells the tree that is fine because all he needs is a place to sit and rest.
I think there is a realization in the road to maturity that receiving isn’t the essence of life. For me it came in my late 20s when my parents sent me airfare money so that my wife, kids and I could visit them over a holiday.
I had come to expect their monetary gifts up until then because they were my parents and had more money than I did as I struggled to financially establish myself. But this time I returned their check and told them it was time for me to begin paying for my own travel.
It was a critical moment for me. I was telling myself I needed to act like an adult. I wish I could say that it immediately led to my becoming a sharing, caring, loving person. But I can’t. It took me decades, well into my 60s, to stop thinking about my own needs, my own wants, my own desires before those of others. What can I say? I was, and still am, emotionally challenged.
I have learned that the most important gifts we give to others aren’t material. They are the gifts that begin with thinking of others first. Little gestures that matter. Asking how someone else is doing before the same question is asked of you. Clearing the table of dirty dishes at a dinner party in which you are a guest because your hosts aren’t your servants. Listening more and talking less. I am much better at this last one in theory than in practice. Did I mention to you that I am an emotional late bloomer?
There are big gestures, too — symbiotic forms of happiness. The mother who craves strawberries giving the last strawberry to her child because her love for that child exceeds her fondness for strawberries is a good example.
December is the gift giving month — Christmas gifts, Hanukkah gifts, gifts to family and gifts to friends. Also, gifts of appreciation to the people who cut our hair, mow our lawns, clean our homes, walk our dogs. Gifts of large and small material value. Gifts that we treasure for a long time.
Gifts we look to immediately regift.
Does this mean that it is better to give than receive? Not always. But more often than not giving has emotional rewards that receiving can’t match.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.