The year my mother revealed there was no Santa Claus was the year I fell in love with Christmas.
Christmas Day in the years before had always been marked by both excitement and disappointment: No matter how many toys I received, there was always something else I hadn’t gotten, causing me dissatisfaction. When my mother confirmed what I had long suspected, that she and my father played the plump saint each year, she gave me the task of helping to keep Christmas alive for my younger brothers. (In turn, my youngest brother had the heavy burden of pretending to still believe in St. Nick until the ripe age of 13, in order to keep his older siblings happy as we sneaked around the house and assisted our mother with the responsibilities of magical gift giving.)
What's funny is that by creating this world for my younger brothers, I found a deeper delight in the holiday—a more profound experience of joy that utterly surpassed receiving the latest Razor scooter or an imitation of Arwen’s necklace from TheLord of the Rings. Looking back, it is easy for me to pinpoint that juncture as the moment Christmas actually adopted a real kind of magic; the moment it became the treasured time that has been a gift to me ever since. It was the joy of giving, and giving not just presents but also myself. I gave up my own excitement about a fantasy in order to create something good for someone else.
Many of us have made this discovery, and I don't mean the Santa's-not-real one. As we've become adults, we look forward to giving gifts more eagerly than receiving them. Many of us have transferred this truth into our relationships as well, be they romantic or otherwise. Be kind, be generous, we were told growing up, and we sharers took it to heart. We delight in giving; we look for new little ways to give more. We scour paper-goods stores for the perfect card for our out-of-state friends; we clean the house excitedly to please our roommates. We surprise our significant others with coffee; we schedule time to call our grandparents. We harass our friends who are getting married to give us opportunities to help, constantly asking for just one more task. All we want is to be of use and to prove how much we care. But this obsessive giving is not a sign of true generosity. It’s a symptom of pride.
As women, we have a deep desire to be wanted, and we often mistake being needed as a form of being wanted. I am guilty of taking advantage of that need—of finding someone so thirsty for a spiritual servant that I could martyr myself for him or her. I’ve used the act of giving as an engorgement charm on my pride, with each act of service inflating it until the person I was attempting to love has become obscured. Look at me, I’ve thought victoriously, look at what a great friend/girlfriend/daughter/granddaughter I am! I’ve tried to protect myself by bestowing so much that no one could replace me; I have tried to defeat the threat of losing someone by becoming so essential for my loved one’s survival, comfort, and happiness. And after all that, there have still been those I’ve lost. Well, at least I did all I could, I'd reassure myself.
I’m not a consistent person, and all my relationships are different. The truth is that I’ve been both a giver and a taker. There was the man in college from whom I took too much and then the man to whom I gave all I could. I could write pages about all the times I’ve made an armor out of my giving. But I am most guilty of this in my friendships. My college roommate and I had very little in common in terms of interests, but we did everything together. During our sophomore year, her best friend from home died, and I sat with her each night for months while she cried. I had never felt so needed. But three years post-college, we drifted apart, thanks to distance and different interests. While we still have a great deal of affection for each other, all the giving in the world could not make me necessary to her. Her life moved on. So did mine.
Any successful interpersonal relationship demands some kind of self-gift. Yet as with anything else, moderation is key. Overgenerosity is in reality unauthentic, and true humility means confessing the limits of how much we have to offer. Pretending to be a perfectly gracious, self-sacrificing woman is just that: pretend. Sometimes we’d like to cover the check for dinner, but humility asks us to admit to ourselves that we only have so much in our bank account until the next paycheck. Sometimes I’d like to drive an hour and a half out of the way to pick up a beloved college friend from the airport, but it means missing precious work hours, and, well . . .I just can’t.
This is not a failure of self but victory for honesty. Giving spares us the pain of wanting. It spares us the pain of not receiving what we hoped for, whether it’s the Arwen necklace I hoped would be under the Christmas tree or the best friend whose interests perfectly match my own. Giving can be a way to escape desire and the consumerist mindset with which we approach so many other things. But at the same time, we must be careful not to become the commodity ourselves. When so much is given so often, the gift of ourselves may become expected—even demanded—allowing what might have been a mutually loving relationship to cross the border into the toxic territory of entitlement. Surprising my significant other with coffee is cute, until he’s annoyed on the one morning I can’t swing it; cleaning the house is a great habit, until you become the Cinderella roommate.
Being able to give is a gift. However, we have to set boundaries. We must be careful not to stretch ourselves past capacity, harming ourselves in the process. We're better off learning to be comfortable with the act of taking sometimes and allowing those we love the wonderful pleasure of being generous to us.
The giver's real challenge, I've learned, is to humble herself by allowing others the pleasure of giving.