We’re approaching the season when many people begin to shop for Christmas. When I was a boy, Christmas shopping began in December, but then it moved to the day after Thanksgiving, and now malls all over the country begin to advertise for Christmas shopping as early as October. So it’s time to address this season that has become the super marketing event of the year.
Several years ago, I got a letter that typifies what many of us go through every Christmas season.
I like a lot of things about Christmas: the lights, the carols, the food. Some people even become nicer than usual. But there’s a lot I really hate about it. Every year I run around trying to get just the right gift for dozens of people, and for what? Half the time I don’t get the right thing, and the other half of the time, people are happy for a few minutes and then it’s forgotten. It’s a lot of work for not much in the long run. But if I don’t buy any presents, people will be mad, so what can I do?”
What we all really want is to feel loved unconditionally. We want relationships where people care about us and enjoy being around us no matter what we do, but very few of us have known that kind of love—Real Love. Instead, we’ve always had to do the right things to make people happy, and if we didn’t, it was obvious from their words, tone of voice, posture, and other behaviors that they were disappointed in us, even irritated.
If we can’t have Real Love, we settle for buying the approval of other people. We try to be cooperative and successful so people will like us. We try to look good, say the right things, and do nice things for people in order to win their approval. Somehow we sense we’ve had to buy other people’s “love” with our behavior, but it still feels better than no approval at all.
Earning the affection of other people is a lot of work—most of us devote our entire lives to it—but what else can we do? Because we can’t live without that approval, we’re willing to keep on earning it, no matter what effort is required. Eventually, the feeling of conditional approval loses its thrill, but we still can’t stop earning it, because the feeling of losing it is intolerable.
So now we’re stuck. Earning conditional love isn’t all that fulfilling, but losing it is awful, so we keep pleasing people just so they won’t dislike us. As you said, if you don’t give any presents, you’re afraid people will be mad. At Christmas time especially—and on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and some other occasions—many, perhaps most, of the people around you expect you to buy gifts and in other ways prove your affection for them and earn their approval.
If you don’t do as they expect, they see it as proof that you don’t care about them, and then they’re disappointed and irritated. Regrettably, their disappointment and irritation prove without doubt that they don’t really care about you and your happiness. If they really cared about you, it wouldn’t matter what you gave them.
People who require gifts are telling you they don’t have enough Real Love in their lives, and they’re giving you the job of filling their emptiness. The pressure to do that is greater than usual at Christmas, because our culture virtually decrees that we must do something at that “special time” for those around us. We ignore that tradition at our peril.
Unfortunately, although no material gifts you give will ever fill the emptiness that results when people don’t have enough Real Love, those people will nonetheless insist with great energy that you try to do just that. With that demanding and ungrateful attitude, however, there are only two possibilities: They can briefly be satisfied with you in a superficial way, or they can be enormously disappointed.
You do not have to be a slave to these demands. Make your own choice about giving presents. You may still choose to give gifts to some people, but do not do that just because you fear what they’ll do if you don’t. If you give gifts from a sense of obligation, in effect you become a hostage to the people who have these expectations of you, and that’s a terrible way to live.
When I hear people describe their Christmas shopping, the word I hear in conjunction with that activity more than any other is the word HAVE, as in “I HAVE to do my Christmas shopping.” There is so much obligation and duty associated with it, and something is wrong with that picture.
Understand that I’m not suggesting you change what you’re doing, only describing a possible solution to your frustration. So what will happen if you simply don’t give gifts to people who have traditionally expected them? Many people won't care a bit. In fact, they'll be relieved, because your gifts always made them feel obligated to give you something in return. Some other people will be disappointed and/or irritated, especially if they gave you a gift, but then what have you really lost? Those who become angry will only prove that they’re not really your friends anyway. They’ll be demonstrating that they’ve just been trading Imitation Love with you.
You can’t control what people think of you, but you can make your decision about Christmas gifts easier on them if you simply tell them about it ahead of time. You could explain that all the shopping has begun to interfere with your enjoyment of the season. You could tell them that you don’t expect anything from them, either, but that you’re not telling them what to do.
For years, I’ve made no Christmas purchases whatever. My wife, Donna, and I enjoy Christmas music, the food, the decorations, and a fire in the fireplace. But I don’t buy her a thing, nor does she get me anything. We’re not trying to make a point of some kind. We simply don’t need such gifts in order to feel loved. Instead we enjoy spending time with family members and friends. When we started doing this, a few people were offended, but either they got over it as they realized our intent, or they decided our friendship had no value to them. In both cases, it was a win.
A couple of years ago, a man asked my wife what I’d given her for Christmas. She said, “Every day of the year—many times a day—he kisses me, touches me, and looks at me with an affection I never thought possible. And that’s what I got for Christmas, too.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s all you got? He didn’t give you a gift?”
Donna smiled and said, “He loves me with all his heart. He’s my best friend. What could I possibly want more than that?”
I’m not telling anyone to stop giving gifts. If my children were small, we’d still be putting gifts under the tree. There’s something magical and unique about believing in Santa. Donna still sends gifts to some of the young children in her extended family.
I can tell you, however, that since we quit feeling the least bit obligated to give gifts, we don’t feel pressured or rushed at that season. Christmas is a delightful time to share with our friends and family the unconditional love we feel for them, just as we hope to do all the other days of the year.
Fill your life with peace and happiness.
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