December is the month of gift-giving, and my birthday falls in December, so I get practically all my gifts during this month.
Often when I read, I’m struck by a particular passage without understanding why it has caught my attention, then over time, its significance becomes clear. I’ve read Story of a Soul, the spiritual memoir of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (my spiritual master), several times. Recently, I suddenly realized why I kept thinking about one particular paragraph.
Its context: one day in 1897, when she in her early twenties, and weakened by the tuberculosis that would soon kill her, Thérèse was sitting in her wheelchair in the garden of her convent. Ordered by her Prioress to complete an account of her childhood memories, she was trying unsuccessfully to write:
When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits of the doctor, everything is discussed…another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems…
I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. For example, here is a hay worker who is just leaving me after having said very compassionately: “Poor little Sister, it must tire you out writing like that all day long.” “Don’t worry,” I answer, “I appear to be writing very much, but really I am writing almost nothing.” “Very good!” she says, “but just the same, I am very happy we are doing the haying since this always distracts you a little.” In fact, it is such a great distraction for me…that I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing.
St. Thérèse emphasizes the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, instead of responding to the gift itself. She doesn’t want to be distracted with chit-chat; she wants to write. She doesn’t want a bouquet in her lap; she wants to see wild flowers growing in the fields. But she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.”
One memory that makes me squirm is that once, several years ago, my husband brought home a big gardenia plant. I love gardenias.
“Thanks,” I said weakly. “It’s so…big.” Inside, my thoughts were about my own limitations: “Where will I put it to display it properly? Can I take care of it? I’m sure to kill it in just a few days, as I always do, and that will be so upsetting. What a waste.”
Gifts often strike strange chords in us. Andy Warhol observed, “You can never predict what little things in the way somebody looks or talks or acts will set off peculiar emotional reactions in other people.” The gift set off a reaction of self-doubt, so I didn’t respond with the enthusiasm that such a thoughtful gift should have provoked. My husband knew I loved gardenias, so he bought me the biggest one he could find! I should’ve taken care to appear happy and especially to be so. Now I think of that gift every time I see a gardenia.
(Reacting to the spirit of a well-intentioned gift wasn’t the same as reacting to a passive-aggressive gift. My friend’s mother thinks she needs to lose weight, so she’s given her running clothes, a certificate for ten spinning classes, and an electronic calories tracker—none of which were appreciated.)
“Respond to the spirit of a gift” is a resolution that’s so obviously right that I shouldn’t have to remind myself of it—but I do.
How about you? Have you ever had trouble responding to the spirit of a gift?
I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.
* I don’t read every post on Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, but when he writes about something interesting to me, it’s very interesting.