The Greatest Gift You Can Give

“Give what you have. To some, it may be better than you dare think.”  -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At this time of year, people from many different faiths and traditions celebrate important holidays. An important part of many of these celebrations is the giving and receiving of special gifts.

I grew up in a home where Christmas was celebrated, and where we children eagerly anticipated a visit from St. Nick on Christmas Eve. I have many pleasant childhood memories of Christmas mornings and the many wonderful gifts I received from Santa. Every Holiday Season, I fondly recall some of those gifts—Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, a View Master, a chemistry set, a record player…

Now that I’m an adult—and an older one at that—I have a deeper appreciation of just how special some of those gifts were. They were literally “gifts from the heart.” My parents were not wealthy, and I now know they sacrificed many of their wants so they could satisfy those of me and my siblings.  We always seemed to get the things we wanted most. Many of the gifts I received led to life-long passions—music, science, art, etc. Thank you Mom and Dad.

Another thing I didn’t understand as a child was how special the gifts I made for my parents in school and on my own were to them. It is very interesting now to look back and remember how I felt giving my parents a “gift from my heart.” I would wait with great anticipation as they tore away the wrapping paper. I delighted to see the smiles my gifts would bring to their faces. I learned, at a very young age, that it is just as fun to give gifts as it is to receive them—sometimes it’s even more fun!

And what makes giving so fun? It’s knowing that you have brought joy to a fellow being. It’s basking in the positive energy that is generated by the grateful heart of the recipient. We all—children and adults alike—crave to know that our gifts are appreciated. Some time ago, I came across this thought that expresses that point well:

“When a child gives you a gift, even if it is a rock they just picked up, exude gratitude. It may be the only thing they have to give, and they have chosen to give it to you.”  -Dean Jackson

My childhood memories of both giving and receiving will always be precious. The experiences behind those memories gave me a lot of joy early in my life’s journey. However, it wasn’t until I was 19 years old, and had a very special experience, that my understanding of both giving and receiving were taken to a whole new level. That experience would change my life.

When I turned 19, I put my schooling on hold to do some volunteer work in California. I was assigned to an area in the “East Bay” that included the cities of Alamo and Danville. I was partnered with another young man who was the same age. When we first met, and were chatting and getting to know each other, we discovered that we were both musicians. I played the piano, and he sang.

As we started our work in this area, and began to get to know a lot of people, word started to spread that we were musicians, and invitations to perform little gigs here and there started coming in.

One day, a woman who was also doing a lot of volunteer work in the area looked us up. She told us about the large retirement home (assisted living facility) she was volunteering at on a weekly basis. She asked us if we would be willing to come by the following Thursday morning and put on a one-hour program for the residents (folk songs, Broadway standards, etc). We readily accepted—telling her that it would be “no big deal.”

The following Thursday we delivered our program and it was a hit! The residents were smiling, singing, rolling back and forth in their wheel chairs, and some were even dancing! As we were getting ready to leave, the recreational therapist approached us and complimented us on our performance and noted how incredibly well received it had been by the residents. She then asked us if we would be willing to come by once a week and do a one-hour program—stating that she would understand if we couldn’t because of the extra burden on our time. We said that we would be happy to do it, and that it would really be “no big deal.”

After a few weeks, we had established a routine, and our performances were fun for us and entertaining for the residents.

One particular Thursday, just as we had arrived to perform—and were just about to enter the room—one of the nurses approached us and said, “Can I talk to you young men for just a moment or two?” We said, “Sure, what’s up?” She looked us both in the eyes and continued, “I just wanted you to know that there are people in that room, waiting to hear you perform, that have only one reason to live from week to week—to  see your smiling faces and to hear your music. I just thought you ought to know that.”

We both just stood there dumbfounded…

As I silently tried to wrap my head around those words, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. How could something so easy for me to do—something that was “no big deal”—be someone else’s reason for staying alive? The whole notion of it seemed preposterous.

I didn’t know what my partner was thinking, but I was quite sure it was something similar to my thoughts.

At any rate, we didn’t have time to process the comment—we had to perform! And perform we did! We delivered the best performance we had in us!

I have carried the experience of that Thursday morning with me throughout my life. I have used it again and again to remind myself of the power I have to impact the lives of others for good. I have also used it to remind myself of all the wonderful things people have done to impact my life.

I learned a very powerful lesson on that special day so many years ago—a lesson that changed my life—a lesson that guides my daily actions. That lesson is this:

The greatest gift you can give another person is a gift of yourself (your talents, your time). 

At this Holiday Season, I am thankful for all the “gifts of self” I have received from others that have impacted—and continue to impact—my life for good.

Happy Holidays to all of you and your loved ones!

-Mark Swain

2 thoughts on “The Greatest Gift You Can Give

  1. Great story Mark! Service to others is our purpose in life! That service may be to our family and friends, or total strangers. Thanks for helping me remember this principle.

    1. Rod, I believe we are here to learn to love and serve each other too. There are so many opportunities to do so–all around us. If we could only get a glimpse here and there–like I did at 19–we’d realize the far-reaching effects of our kind deeds.

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