‘It is better to give…’ not really and not always

The Christmas give-and-take in search of life’s meaning

At a glance

  • A beatific light came into her facewhenshe realized that she could give, that she could bring cheer, that she could put a healing finger on a case needier than hers... —ChristmasIs a Sad Season for the Poor, John Cheever

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Illustration Randrian Panopio

I’ve always had happy Christmases, except two.

The first was Christmas in 1991, when my boss sent me to look for a printer that could on a very nonexistent chance still be open after the holiday rush on Dec. 24 and I ended up so tired I slept through Noche Buena.

The second was Christmas in New York in 1998, but that was different. The plan was to check off an item on my bucket list, which was to watch the crystal ball drop at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and if the price was Christmas Eve in New York away from my family, so be it. I had Christmas dinner with a cousin at a Moroccan restaurant in the Lower West Side and from that dinner, just a tad too late for the midnight countdown, I made it to Noche Buena with one of my “bestest” friends and another cousin in the Upper East Side. How bittersweet that Noche Buena was! It was just chocolate cake and coffee, and my friend and I, with every bite of cake and sip of coffee, looking out at the Chrysler Tower from the window, recalled all the lechon, pancit, rellenong bangus, menudo, puto bumbong, atbp. on the Noche Buena table in Manila, 13,665 kilometers away from and 12 hours ahead of us.

But Christmas 1998 was all adventure, just proof that one can’t have everything every time. It’s a blessing that overall Christmas has been a happy occasion for me. Not to say it isn’t a blessing for those who’ve had less than happy memories of Christmas.

Think of Irish-American writer Frank McCourt and his mother Angela McCourt going “to the butcher’s to get meat for Christmas, but all she is able to obtain with her grocery dockets is a pig’s head. As they carry home the meat, Frank’s classmates see them and laugh at their poverty. Frank’s father is disgusted that Frank had to carry the head home. He considers carrying things through the streets undignified, and refuses to do it himself.” But the pig’s head, a doleout from charity, was not all, they also had to beg for coal so they could cook it. They had to drag the coal through the rain with all the neighbors sneering at them and calling them Zulus because they were smeared in coal. In the end, Angela gets to cook the pig’s head and “the family has a jolly Christmas dinner.”

And that Christmas story is forever a part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes by this high-acclaimed Irish-born American writer recalling the misery and squalor of his youth in Limerick in southern Ireland before the family migrated to New York. Who’s more blessed now? Who’s less blessed, for that matter? Not saying he is, not saying I am (not that I am in his league in any way) in answer to either of the questions, because neither he nor I know the rest of each other’s story, not completely and not exactly.

That’s the beauty of life. You can’t say you are the luckiest person in the world (even if you were on top of it) without being hyperbolic about it. And even if you are down and out, you can’t say you are the unluckiest, either. Someone is bound to be unluckier than you, which gives you at least one reason, if you look hard enough, to be grateful.

Oh and happiness, now that I’m older, I realize is not the end all, be all of life. An astrologer, defying my expectations of her as my protector and guide, once told me to stop it when I sought her help in skipping life’s frustrations, disappointments, and misfortunes on my way to my good fortune. I was consulting with her about my restlessness and she said, “Be glad you are restless. The worst thing is to be content for 25 years, not wanting to leave, not wanting to be some place different, and then you wake up after 25 years and realize where you are is not where you want to be.” How I wished, back then, that she said, “Just wear red or violet on Mondays.”

But I understand now what she meant. Pain and suffering do not take from life as much as we fear and, in a positive light, they do enrich life or inform it, give it meaning. Not to say that happiness doesn’t do the same, except that now I believe the important thing is meaning. How to come to it is life’s most essential pursuit.

Life draws meaning from success as it does from failure, sometimes more from failure, unless you languish in it. This reminds me of the lawyer character in Afghan novelist Nadia Hashimi’s A House Without Windows. The lawyer has long escaped Kabul, but he chose to have his legal practice in his birth city, preferring the insurmountable challenges of the broken Afghan legal system over the pursuit of a corner-office-on-the-top-floor distinction of a legal career in New York.

Not to say there is less fulfillment in that kind of first world achievement. I guess different strokes for different folks, but yes, life can draw as much meaning from poverty as it can from affluence, from health as from sickness, from beauty as from ugliness, from peace as from war, from love as from hate or fear, as long you don’t languish in the negatives, unless languishing in the negatives makes an example of you, makes a lesson out of your life for others, in which case your life will have some meaning.

Like that of every villain in history, in film, in literature, in our life, who challenges us to go this way or that, to feel one way or another, to be something else, good or bad, or to stay true to who we really are.

I cite so many examples, but in the hope that I could inspire you to read the story for a little Christmas enlightenment, I’ll cite American writer John Cheever’s short story Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor. A classic Cheever, light yet cautionary, it takes us deep into human actions and motivations. In this Christmas tale, at once humorous and somber, we are confronted with the sentimentality of giving, as well as the guilt or the shame that comes with receiving.

Some people, in an attempt to inspire generosity or even to justify it, will tell you, “it is better to give than to receive...”

Not true at all. If may venture a guess while I have yet to wean myself from a lifetime’s worth of lessons in pride, a ₱5 million donation doled out without thought or sacrifice is so much less meaningful than one single peso received by a truly humbled heart.

Here’s to a meaningful season for all of us!