When I was a child I would pore over Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs. I turned the pages until the ink smudged and the paper became soft with wear. I also savored magazine ads for Daisy and Red Rider BB guns, Schwinn and Huffy bicycles, Lionel and American Flyer model trains. I lost myself in anticipatory pleasure.
But sometimes when I got one of my wished-for toys and played with it for a while, it seemed less pleasurable than the anticipation beforehand. Once I became accustomed to to the toy, the pleasure diminished. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened often enough to detect a pattern. Things, in and of themselves, don’t make us happy. Desire and happiness are more complicated.
Sometimes, the pleasure we experience is worth the asking price. One day as I walked past Red Rutherford’s Skelly service station after school I spotted a used, shiney, black Cushman Eagle motor scooter with a chrome gearshift, and day after day it became an object of desire. I knew I’d have to mow a lot of lawns to buy it, and it wasn’t lawn mowing season so I was depressed in equal measure with my desire for this lovely machine.
Shortly before Christmas it was gone. I was heartbroken. My fantasies of tearing around town, shifting that two-speed transmission with its characteristic sound of grinding gears were deflated, and it was hard to bear. I went into a funk.
On Christmas morning, however, I was led into the front yard at my grandparent’s house and there sat the Cushman Eagle. It seemed the best Christmas ever. And truth to tell, I got a lot of pleasure from that motor scooter for quite a long time.
How my single parent mother, caring for three children on a nurse’s salary in our small town, managed to put the money aside to buy it still mystifies me. But she did, and I was ever grateful.
These memories are called to mind because United Methodist Communications is asking us to Rethink Advent and give the gift of ourselves rather than become engulfed in the material commercialism that so infects Christmas these days. It’s a worthy suggestion. Uncritical indulgence can lead us into financial problems, emotional letdown and buyer’s remorse. These don’t make us happy, they make us feel worse and leave us economically and emotionally bereft.
We do feel happier when we give of ourselves, and the feeling seems to affect us in multiple ways. We feel contentment and inner warmth. And we don’t experience buyer’s remorse.
Our relationship to things is directly connected to our sense of self-worth, our relationships with others and our beliefs about what things can or cannot do for our well-being. Things don’t replace, or even enhance, our relationships if those are not in good repair. They don’t buttress our flagging esteem if we’re depressed, fearful, or emotionally damaged.
To Rethink Advent is a good thing if we think critically about why we’re giving, how giving will enhance wellbeing, how it will affect us emotionally and financially. And perhaps it will help us discover that the best gift we can give is serving others and attending to those we love and those less advantaged.
I suspect the pleasure that comes as a result will rival any that I used to find in those mail order catalogs and last a lot longer.
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