When a change of style becomes a unexpected gift

Early on a December evening, a suburban hair salon buzzes with activity. Customers who have hurried here after work are relaxing amid the whir of dryers and the hum of pre-holiday conversation.

Then a young man enters. As he settles into the chair, he points to his long brown ponytail and tells the stylist, Janet, "I'm tired of this. I want it short." The two talk briefly about specific styles. Then, with a few quick snips of her scissors, she cuts off the ponytail and hands it to him. "Wow!" he exclaims, shaking his head to test the freedom of a newly bare neck.

While Janet deftly trims and shapes, he explains that he is a high school senior and has not cut his hair for three years. When she finishes, he beams at his sleek new Hugh Grant look. He thanks her, they exchange holiday wishes, and he leaves, happily clutching his ponytail in a plastic bag.

As he heads out into the December darkness, other customers smile approvingly at the makeover. "Somewhere, some mother is going to have a very happy Christmas this year," one woman says. Those around her laugh and agree.

What a gift this teenager may have unknowingly given his parents. Yet a haircut is hardly something a mother can put on her holiday wish list. Probably no amount of gentle coaxing could have persuaded him to make this appointment until he was ready. It is a gift the son had to give in his own good time, for his own reasons.

It is also the kind of act that prompts an onlooker in the salon to imagine other gifts that can never be contained in a box or lovingly wrapped and placed under the tree. Intangible and unexpected, they form a different kind of giving.

Consider the possibilities: In addition to parents waiting quietly for teenage offspring to change their dress or behavior, think of teenagers themselves longing for a parent's understanding and acceptance, whatever the length of their hair or the number of body piercings they sport. Think of spouses yearning for a partner to give up an addictive habit. Or welfare recipients wishing for a steady job, or children whose best gift would be the return of an absent parent. The list of gifts without price tags goes on.

Then there is the ultimate unwrappable, unbuyable gift - the gift of forgiveness.

These nonmaterialistic offerings silently mock all the regular gifts artfully displayed on store shelves and handsomely featured in catalogs and on Web sites. This year in particular, as online shopping booms, the pressure to buy intensifies. But in the midst of prosperity and endless choices, the search for the perfect present often remains an elusive goal.

Last week an unusual full-page advertisement in the business section of The Boston Globe urged those in upscale income brackets to consider another kind of gift that can't be wrapped or placed under a tree: philanthropy.

Appealing to "everyone who has more money than they know what to do with," the ad reminds readers that "while the American economy is doing great, the fact is, far too many Americans aren't." Then it suggests ways to help:

"Talk to someone at your local battered women's shelter or soup kitchen. Go back to your high school and give a kid a college scholarship." And write a check for $10,000 or more.

The ad is unsigned. Cloaked in anonymity, the writer reveals only that he - or she - started with nothing, saying, "I remember just how sweet it was to make my first million. But I also know the singular joy of giving some of it away."

That "singular joy" might please Emerson, who places stern responsibilities on givers. "It is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not express your life and talent," he writes, adding, "The only gift is a portion of thyself."

As the last frenzied and well-meaning shoppers hurry through malls this week, racing the clock to Christmas Eve, Emerson's seasonless thoughts carry a timely message. They also pay tribute to the givers of unwrappable gifts everywhere - gifts as impressive as a philanthropist's wide-ranging generosity, as modest and touching as a teenager's pre-Christmas haircut.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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