The Gift of Receiving

My birthday is coming up soon, and since I’m too happily busy this year to plan anything, I’ve instead enjoyed looking back on past memorable birthdays and what they meant to me. This morning, this memory came to mind:

It was my 12th birthday, I think. My mom always hosted a joint birthday party for me and my brother with our extended family, and a small party for each of us with a few friends. Since no one in my family or my friends’ families had much money to spare, my gifts were usually modest and few. But that year, for some reason, I got lots of great gifts. My mom had saved her best present for last; a teddy bear I’d been pining for. Because she knew I really wanted it, she let me think I hadn’t received it until that evening when she announced, “Oh wait, I almost forgot . . . I have one more gift for you.” I was so excited.

But an hour later, I went to her room with my teddy bear and said, “Here, you should return this.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Well,” I said. “I feel bad. I got so many great gifts this year. This feels like too much.”

To my surprise, my mother became angry with me. “It’s not your place to return a gift that someone wants to give you,” she said. “I was happy to give you this gift because I knew you really wanted it. You’re ruining it.”

I was shocked. I was the kid who always tried to do the “right” thing, and I thought that’s what I was doing. I’m not sure why my mom reacted so strongly. Maybe something else was upsetting her, maybe she was tired, maybe she was picking up a hint of false humility on my part. Though I never forgot her admonishment, it didn’t stop me from loving that bear.

The other day, we received an invitation to a party for an important occasion with the instruction, “No gifts.” I was a little disappointed to see that, because the occasion is a big deal and I thought it called for something special. I’ll respect their request, of course. It’s a pretty common one, especially as we get older. There are few things at this stage in life any of us really need, and many of us, myself included, are trying to declutter, so I get it.

I word my invitations a little differently though. I always say, “No gifts necessary.” Because they’re not. I will never, ever ask for gifts, nor do I need them, but if there’s a new chocolate bar you’ve been dying for me to try, or a small bouquet at the grocery store that is calling to you, or a funny, big-ass balloon that makes you feel like a little kid when you walk it to the car, I’ll take it.

It feels a little risky to write this post for fear it will be misinterpreted. All I’m really saying is, if my birthday, or any other occasion, provides you an excuse to do something that makes you happy, that makes me happy. Just like my mom with that bear. And if giving you a present or doing you a favor makes me happy, can that be okay with you?

While we can all agree it’s often better to give than to receive, could it also be true that sometimes it’s better to receive than to give? And I’m not just talking about birthdays here . . .

Think about it.

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