The thought occurred to me sometime between boiling rice for dinner last Sunday night and shopping for digital cameras on Cyber Monday. With Thanksgiving and its stuffing moving into the rear view*, the Christmas shopping season is now hitting our windshields, and had even managed to capture my attention before the calendar passed into December. What can I say? I’m a horribly domestic male, and if I do have a guilty pleasure aside from fine cheese and Taylor Swift songs cranked up in the privacy of my own truck, it’s shopping for a bargain.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in college I was a complete minimalist. I rarely ate out, didn’t blow money on anything that wouldn’t keep me alive, and bought into the idea that a penny saved is a penny that will one day come in handy for something I might actually want for something I’d actually need.
Sometime during the last year, I must have arbitrarily decided that day had come. Having lived a life where excessive, Scrooge-like saving and austerity didn’t lead to happiness, I felt it necessary to swing my personal pendulum in the other direction. Slowly but surely, I’ve built up a comfort level with buying, well, stuff. No, that’s not being honest with myself. To be perfectly forthcoming, I’ve become a loose cannon when it comes to buying food and drink, and of having to have everything. Of needing to try everything. No sooner do I guzzle a 2 liter of coke zero in the time in takes to watch a commercial, or plow my way through an ice cream cone in a post-workout high, then I’m already opening up my wallet and checking Walmart shelves for what I want next.
It’s as if I’ve reset my comfort level of what is normal in life, and have, somehow, declared that my only way to interact with the world, to experience the vibrancy of life, is through the sensation of buy, eat, and repeat. After finally settling into a full-time job, there’s a sense that my days of saving for something that may never come — a house, a family, a life? — were futile, and the mere presence of having money and of already having saved money means I might as well spend it. Adding to it all are the stresses of life. Those moments of anxiety and frustration which seem to come in waves each and every day, and the feeling that my only way of escaping them is to feed this cycle of often pointless purchases and consumption.
Sometime in the days after Thanksgiving I was immersed in these impulses, wondering how to reconcile them with the seasonal questions of what I should get my parents for Christmas. I also was thinking of how to respond to their questions of what I might actually want.
Want. It’s an interesting word, and something which I’m still learning to define, especially when there’s a world out there that doesn’t even know what want means. They don’t know it because all they know is to need, and all they’re trying to do is to survive. I may talk about trying to ‘survive’ my of work related stress and personal insecurities, but outside my narrow focus are billions of people who are really struggling to just survive.
It is better to give than receive. We hear it all the time during the Holiday season, and in a lot of ways, I think most people embrace it. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a warm feeling inside when they see a loved one’s face? I sure have, but eventually, those smiles pass back into regular life. The gifts we give, the money we spend, even when they bring someone we love happiness, they’ll eventually fade away.
Which brings me back to the rice. Boiling it for dinner, I was in no way turned on in wanting its taste, its nutrition, or even the act of making it — a culinary practice involving the creative construct of, say, a Soviet architect. Yet in making it, I was reminded that food, and that all material things, really, are not always meant to be about want or temporary feelings of euphoria. For some people, for most people, food, drink, and all things are about need. The kind of need that really saves.
Last Christmas, my mother gave me the gift of a donation of a donkey in my name. I won’t lie — I wasn’t a kid jumping up into her arms thanking her for a Turboman. But looking back on the experience a year later, I realize that anything she could have given me in its place — a gift card, a useless kitchen gadget, a dumb shirt — would probably have passed away from my memory before we even got out of the cold months. What she actually got — a donkey given to a poor third world family — however, well that’s something which likely made a real difference (and perhaps still does) in a family’s life. Looking back on it, I can smile and know something good and helpful came from the simple act of honoring a tradition of giving.
I flash back to my boiling rice, and I know what I want this Christmas, and I know what I want to give. What I don’t know is if I’ll ever be a truly happy or content person. I struggle with anxiety, have a temper that often gets the best of me, and wear my flaws on my sleeves. But while I don’t know if I will ever find something — find, you might say, what I really want — in this life, I know I have the power to take each and everyday and help some one, somewhere, have access to something they truly need.
Somehow, all those years of saving suddenly make sense. You might say I knew I was saving for something. I just didn’t know it would be less about me, and more about something far more worth it.
Considering giving a gift that matters this year? Consider that for under 15 bucks, you can buy a enough food for a family in Haiti for an entire month. How can you object to that? I mean, if even I can give up 2 weeks of Coke Zero 2-liters, I don’t think finding an extra 15 bucks in your life is too much trouble. If you’re interested in giving a gift of giving this Holiday season (and really, there’s nothing wrong with Holiday, ok?) check out websites like Food for the Poor.
*Although, I should opine, it doesn’t have to. Move into the rear view mirror, that is. After eating my mother’s rendition of Cooking Light’s Fennel, Sausage, and Caramelized Onion stuffing I’ve concluded, without question, that stuffing (or dressing, as my coworker from Georgia corrects me) need not be relegated to a once-a-year occurance. Frankly, I don’t know if once-a-week will even suffice given how addictivly tasty this stuff is.