Like most people, I have done things that I wish I had not done, but it seems rare that something I am sorry I did is linked inextricably to something else I am glad to have done.
Growing up in a middle-class family, I lived in material security. My mother and father saw that my brother, sister and I were always clothed and fed. At Christmas, that festival of food and gifts, there would always be lots of presents. Most of my early memories of Christmas are extremely pleasant, beginning with the enormous conifer in our living room that was dressed in silvery tinsel, shiny balls, candle-shaped bulbs that percolated colored liquid when they were connected by green electric cords wrapped around the tree. Then there were decorative Santas and the silver star of Bethlehem that topped the tree. Around the base of the tree would be a village of boxes, beautifully wrapped and labeled with each of our names.
One Christmas when I might have been seven or eight, I opened all of my presents on Christmas morning, and each one seemed interesting, but somehow not what I wanted, not enough. And when all of us had opened our presents, I surveyed the living room full of torn wrapping paper, now-empty boxes and scattered toys, sweaters and books, and I felt empty. Let down. The aftermath of Christmas could not hold a candle to the promise leading to it.
I made the mistake of expressing my disappointment. “Is that all there is?”
My father browbeat me furiously. “You have been given all of these gifts, and you dare complain?”
No one came to my defense. I was an ingrate, and although I was really chastened, there seemed no way to take it back. I spent the rest of the morning, if not the rest of the day, both sorry and yet convinced that I could not have helped myself. It was how I had profoundly felt at that moment.
Fast-forward forty-five years.
It was Christmas. I was visiting my half-sister, her husband and her seven-year-old son, Danny, a gentle but nervous boy who seemed to feel everything deeply. On the morning of the big day, he sat on the floor, ripping open each of his presents with the same trembling anticipation. Ultimately, though, he set aside each gift and opened the next. When he had opened them all, he slumped. My sister asked him what was the matter, and he complained that he felt disappointment. His step-father—a generally kind and affable man who nevertheless was often flummoxed to distraction with his hypersensitive step-son—was furious. He said that he and Danny’s mother as well as Uncle Miles had provided him with many gifts, and Danny had no right to be so ungrateful. Danny recoiled from this verbal attack and was on the brink of tears. His step-dad stormed out of the room. His mother seemed embarrassed and even apologized to me for Danny’s display. I said that I was not offended, but this did not dissipate the cloud of shame being cast over Danny. He seemed humiliated and confused, and he rushed into another room.
I waited a moment before following Danny. I felt compelled to say something to him, though I had yet to formulate it. When we were alone, I told him that the excitement of anticipating something often leads to a let-down afterwards. The outcome can never live up to our expectations.
“Feeling let down after all the hoopla is normal,” I told him. “I had the same feeling of disappointment after I opened my gifts when I was your age.”
“You did?” said Danny. He thought about this and asked, “Does it get better?”
“Yes,” I said. “At least a little.”
Danny smiled. And that was his gift to me.
Share this post with your friends.