It’s festival season all over the world, with some of the most commercial festivals cropping up soon. I love this season because it encourages us to think of our friends and families; in a world that is increasingly shrinking inwards and become insular, expanding outward to our communities is a welcome act.
Unfortunately, the commercial-ness of some of the festivals is getting in the way of connecting with others. Gifts, in nicely wrapped boxes, used to be a nice way to show we care; they have become abused and mutated into a short cut when we can’t find time and energy. Gifting has also become expensive, with a competition to outdo others and even our own previous record. The act remains, the point is lost.
The importance of giving comes back to the giver too. As I wrote about in a previous blogpost, giving makes us happy because it is an occasion when we are in synch with the world. As we lead more hectic, stressful, burnt out lives, finding joy becomes more critical. Giving, as I show below, can be done in ways that are accessible, don’t get in the way of life (not too much, anyway), and can bestow tremendous joy for the giver as well as the receiver, more than a typical gift will do.
To bring back the true spirit of gifting, which is giving of our time, energy and love to friends, family and wider community, here are a few ideas for this year’s festive season.
It makes a difference, sometimes the difference between life and death for a mother’s son, a daughter’s father, a husband’s wife, a friend’s friend.
Recently, I saw the coverage of the horrible Las Vegas shootout massacre. The day after, local residents were pouring in to donate their blood. Amidst the overwhelming chaos, everyday folks kept coming in and offering their blood to help save strangers. On its own, this gesture might feel small, even insignificant. What can a bag of blood do when the problem is so big?
A lot. Hundreds of people were injured, and the individual bags of blood kept them alive and helped them recover.
We don’t need a massacre attack to give blood. Every day, people are looking for a saviour, in the form of a blood donor. It’s an easy way to be a hero. How much bigger a gift can you give than life to someone?
Spend your time with old people.
When we’re young, we have friends and family around us, a bustling beehive of conversations, fights, make-up sessions, parties and all the fun activities our bodies and our social circle permit. We are in the prime of life, we are the center of attraction for the world.
Old people, however, are the forgotten. They’ve been moved to the sidelines as a newer, shinier generation steps forward. The simple progression of time and aging means they lose their own social network to death, thinning out until they’ve out-survived many of their peers. They literally have no one to talk to. It gets lonely.
There are many that have carved out a new life, a second innings, if you will. In places like Japan, where the aged are everywhere, society has shifted to keep them more in the center than others. However, there are many other old folks who find themselves left behind; they’ve not prepared for this part of life, and now they’re on their own. Whether at an old folks’ home or in their own private homes, they feel lost at sea without any anchor.
Your casual visit to them cheers them up in a way no bow-tied box can. It leaves them with fodder to chew on for days after the visit, the happy smile lingering on the face at recollections of the visit.
Look at them, make them feel seen. Listen to them, so they feel heard. These small acts do a huge service to the elderly – they acknowledge them as worthwhile and interesting human beings.
And they are, if you can show the patience to see and hear them. They’ve got a perspective on the world at a time when you weren’t born – where will you get such firsthand historical accounts? They’ve lived many more ups and downs than you – who else can give you a perspective on how to survive life? They’ve seen you when you were a new-born – who else can tell you what you were like before you were able to see yourself?
Old people are a treasure trove of stories and histories. They’ll give this to you in exchange for a small price, your time and attention. It’s a good deal.
Take kids to a cultural show.
You’ll have an impact on them that will stay for the rest of their lives.
One of the most impressionable experiences in my life was when I was taken to a broadway show and then the famous jazz club, The Blue Note, in New York City when I was a freshman in college. I had never seen anything like it before, I was blown away. I only got to experience it because the father of a school friend decided to take a bunch of us for a day out in NYC.
I don’t think he realises what he did that day. I saw a world unfold in front of my wide eyes that showed me exciting dimensions to life that I wasn’t even aware of. Incredible heights of song and dance, a community of people where THIS was the natural style of living, and, most importantly, a dedication to the stuff that makes us humans beyond the act of survival and doing the prescribed thing. I saw people interacting with each other freely and openly, something I had not grown up with. The singer at the Blue Note that evening was a lady in her 60s or even 70s who looked spectacular: sequinned long dress, coiffed hair and heavy make-up. She rolled out those songs like smoky wisps of air. In between, she bantered in her husky voice with the audience and the jazz band, laughing throatily before launching into another jazz tune. I loved her. It has been over 20 years since I was there, and I can still see her, the stage lights glistening magnificently on her.
What did this do to me? It showed me that there are different ways of living life, that there are avenues to be discovered, where others have already congregated and you will not be alone. In no small measure, however indirectly, this experience injected confidence in me to follow my own path because I saw others doing it.
Take kids out to stuff like this, you never know what stays with them and shapes their lives.
Cook for your friends.
The act of eating is so primal, it is essential to our survival. Eating well is essential to not just surviving but thriving.
That’s why the act of feeding is so significant. You can nourish the soul, in addition to the body. Our feelings are transferred through food, and when we cook lovingly for people we care about, that love reaches them.
One of my favourite holidays ever is the American Thanksgiving. It is wholly dedicated to bringing family and friends together around a table of food. A turkey sits in the center, and the culture of Thanksgiving exists on stories of turkeys getting burnt, lumpy gravy, and forgotten cranberry sauce, in addition to the chaotic logistics of seating inordinately more people than the dining room was built for and who sits on the kiddies’ table vs the adults table. Person after person rings the doorbell and enters with loud greetings and laughs, with doors getting hastily shut to keep the cold air out.
One Thanksgiving, I had some friends from graduate school over to my flat in Boston. We had American representation but most of the crowd was international. In other words, minimal expertise in cooking Thanksgiving fare. It was a hilarious disaster, with a large turkey that was given enough time to bake and still refused to cooperate. Unsure, my Italian friend G. and I made the executive decision to carve up the turkey and pan fry it to confirm it was cooked. The bird still refused to let go of its pink hue. We were flummoxed, the milling group in the other rooms was getting hungry, and so, in order to avoid a total flop show, we served a scant few pieces of turkey we were convinced were ready for consumption, with loads of side servings (stuffing, cranberries, salad, bread, beans, pumpkin pie) and even more wine. It was the best Thanksgiving ever, and entirely due to the shared act of cooking and eating.
Cooking parties are a guaranteed good time, much better than ordering in food or eating out. It’s more time and effort, which is your gift. The reward is more than commensurate.
We don’t write letters anymore, which makes them all the more unique and capable of delighting. It is a gratifying feeling to receive a letter that shows thoughtfulness – thoughtful of you the recipient, and thoughtful of the sender, who has chosen to make time to consider what to write.
Most important to me, however, is the fact that a letter reflects a writer who is willing to share his or her feelings with you about what is going on in their lives. Not just willing, reaching out to connect with you by opening up. We don’t share so openly anymore; emails, text messages and instant messages consistently get shorter and more functional with each new format. Our emotions are encapsulated in emojis and we don’t need to elaborate on them.
Elaboration is exactly what’s needed, though, as a writer and reader of a letter. As a writer, to have a canvas on which to detail our interpretations, our misgivings, our hopes. It’s what makes us us. As a reader, to have a lens into our dear friend’s world, to receive a map into the field of emotions that has sprung up.
When we write letters, we give our trust to our friend the reader, that what we have shared will be read with care and accepted with sympathy. We give our friend the opportunity to be a friend. It bonds us, across land and sea. Isn’t that what it’s about?
Giving is far better than gifting. The more commercial our festivals become, the more important it is to defy the easy way of material gifts and invest in the reason we want to give gifts in the first place, to make others feel appreciated, thought of, and cared for. In the act, it gives to the giver as well, emitting essential joy into our existence.