This week, “Sponge Bob Square Pants Holiday Party” joins “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV to usher in the holiday season. They offer the comfort of long-standing traditions in a world that changes uncomfortably fast, and also signal the official beginning of the holiday season.
The 24-hour Twilight Zone Marathon (not sure what that has to do with the holidays) as well as the day-long re-playing of the classic comedy “Christmas Story” are supposed to get us in the mood.
Another yearly favorite is the film version of O.Henry’s wonderful short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” The story is about a young married couple in New York at the dawn of the twentieth century. They fell off the fiscal cliff long ago, are very much in love, though quite poor, and each have one thing that they value highly. Jim has a pocket watch which his father and grandfather had before him, and Della has unusually beautiful and long, flowing hair which is her only tangible asset. Both Jim and Della secretly yearn to demonstrate the great depth of the love they have for one another by finding a perfect gift.
I’ve always loved this story because it shows dramatically how people in harmony with one another have become so. The best thing we can give a loved one is to reflect back to them the highest image they privately hold of themselves. Our job is to observe, to know them well and love them enough to figure out what that image is—a great mom, the best breadwinner, the kid who aspires to be an athlete, a friend who values her own great sense of style.
Our job is to put aside our own judgments about the highly prized image people hold about themselves. After all, it’s their image.
We were recently at a dinner where the older patriarch, a veteran of WWII, held forth for the umpteenth time about the wild pursuit of his airplane by four Nazi fighter planes. The family listened as though for the first time. Later, when I questioned one of them about their great patience, they said, “He really enjoys seeing himself as the war hero.” The family’s interest and rapt attention were their gift which reflected back to him the image he privately held of himself—his family wrapped up feelings for him and made a gift of listening with love.
If we know how someone wants to feel, and we know just what to do to get them to feel just that, why withhold that from them? What if a child in the family seems to want lots of attention. What’s wrong with just giving them extra attention? Chances are that they’ll feel very special, which will only bring good to their lives.
The ending of “The Gift of the Magi” takes place on Christmas eve as the couple exchanges gifts with each other. Jim has sold his pocket watch to purchase a set of beautiful combs for Della’s hair. A shocked Della removes her scarf to reveal that she has sold her hair for $20.00 to buy a fob for Jim’s pocket watch. The story ends with the couple embracing, richer for the gifts they’ve received, careless of the fact that neither has any use for them.
This holiday season, and all year long, we can build stronger marriages and create more loving bonds with children and friends by quietly observing and asking ourselves: what is the highest and best image they privately hold of themselves? When we know the answer, we can commit to reflecting back to them, through words and thoughts, that we see exactly who they are.
Ruth Wimsatt can be reached at [email protected]