What makes us happy? Shhh, it’s a secret

You know as well as I do that the materialistic side of Christmas seems to balloon a little more each year. There’s no end to the stuff that can go on a wish list.

But the other side of Christmas — if we look for it — is still there.

That’s the side that has the potential to do something really great inside us. The side that can, in Grinchlike fashion, grow our hearts three sizes. The side that reminds us others could use our help, our resources, or just our company.

That’s the side of Christmas I’m reminded of as I encourage three little kids to give away some of the toys they have amassed from the 12 birthdays and 12 Christmases between them (and to give our toy room a little breathing space).

I want them to learn to give, not just because they have too much, and not just because other kids might need it. But mostly, I want them to learn to give because it does something wonderful to the heart and soul of the giver.

I learned that truth from my parents. They were great gift-givers. My mom prided herself in giving perfect presents, each one a best-kept secret to be revealed Christmas morning. It made her very happy.

But growing up, the most wonderful time of the year also brought charity, and that, too, was prompted by my parents. We picked out presents for needy kids, visited with residents at the senior center and even handed out sandwiches to homeless men under a Denver bridge on a frigid December afternoon.
They were all good exercises in giving. But what sticks in my mind, and my heart, are the times I watched my parents give when they thought no one was watching.
For my dad, it was on that same frigid day as I handed out food to a long line of homeless men. I watched from afar as my dad befriended a man who had lost everything that was important to him; who had nothing left in the world but a tattered coat, worn shoes and a holey stocking cap. He didn’t even have gloves.
After they talked for a while, Dad put his hand on the man’s shoulder, handed him his business card, and walked away. But then he stopped and turned around in his tracks. He loosened his leather gloves from his hands and passed them to the man. As he walked past me, I noticed the tears in his eyes. It made him very happy.
My mom did it too, a secret act of giving that still resonates in my heart today. We were standing in line at the courthouse payment counter when we overheard a conversation at the next window between the clerk and a young mother. The woman holding a baby was earnestly explaining that she didn’t have enough money to cover her speeding ticket, and likely wouldn’t for some time. The little cash she had for the rest of the month was her grocery money. She could pay $5 now, and pay the rest next month. The clerk told her she was sorry, but she could only give her until the end of the month to settle the bill. The young mother walked away, defeated, wondering how she would come up with the money.
“How much does she owe?” my mom asked the clerk after the mother had left the building.
The clerk said a number, and Mom wrote out a check for the total and passed it to her.
“Please show that her ticket was paid in full,” Mom said quietly, and the clerk nodded.
We walked away in silence. But I could sense that my mother was beaming, an outward sign of a heart that had just grown in size. It made her very happy.
Giving is a learned trait. Practice and exercises in charity are important parts of the education process. But the best lessons my parents taught me were the ones I learned when they didn’t think I was watching. And so it is with my children. I will teach them that donating their old toys does a heart good; that giving is a gift in itself.
But their real education in giving they will learn from us, their parents, when we think they aren’t watching. And that is as good a reason as any to give generously, so that when our children feel that tugging in their own hearts — whether they are 7 or 17 or 70 — they’ll do the same. And it will make them very happy.

Amy Palser

Amy Palser writes personal stories readers can relate to: tales of family and friends, of childhood and rites of passage, of fantastic people and ordinary things. Her column appears each Saturday. She is the Tribune's managing editor.

Copyright © 2015