One of my favorite times while growing up was when Grandma came to visit. She traveled 3,000 miles to see the family, and always brought big hugs and a present for each of her grandchildren. We all loved Grandma.
I always knew what Grandma would bring me because she always brought the same thing. My brothers and sisters would get different surprises with each trip, but the present I was handed each year was a jigsaw puzzle. After years of collecting the predictable gift, I decided I wanted something different next time, and made up my mind that if she brought me one more jigsaw puzzle, I was going to complain.
Sure enough, after all the hugs and kisses were over with Grandma's next visit, out came the presents. And what did she give me? You guessed it. That umpteenth puzzle was the last straw. I mumbled disapproval and let Grandma know that I was not happy with her choice of gifts.
Then the most heart-crushing look swept over Granny's face. She was hurt. Her bighearted smile we all loved wilted. She didn't know what to say. She had tried to please me, but I was unhappy.
I felt horrible. How selfish I had been, how careless. I wanted to take back what I'd said, but it was too late. I would have given up any number of presents to see Grandma cheerful again.
Words can't be pulled back once uttered, but lessons can be learned. Remorse over my insensitive criticism led me to conclude later that I needed to be happy with what I had, and not wish for something else.
I've done my best to practice this lesson over the years since.
Paul's guidance in the book of Hebrews, "Be content with such things as you have" (Heb. 13:5, Revised King James Version), has adjusted my attitude in a positive way many times. In a consumer-driven society where large amounts of time and energy are spent in the pursuit of self-gratification, the instruction to be content with what one has may seem hard to follow and even unreasonable. But if we believe we always need something more to be happy, we will probably always be unhappy. Even when we get something more, typically, we want something else after that. Life is much more enjoyable when we're content with what we have and know God will provide anything else we need when we need it.
When it comes to getting gifts, I've resolved that the gifts I receive really don't matter compared to the attitude I have about receiving them. If I receive a blue tie, and I already have five blue ties, it's OK. Someone thought about me, and that is special. The giver's thoughtfulness needs to be acknowledged. If someone gives me dark chocolates when I like only milk chocolates, it doesn't matter. Someone thought about me and showed that thoughtfulness with a gift. I need to value the care behind the act.
I remember one mid-December night sitting in our living room on the sofa and hugging my wife next to my side, feeling like one of the luckiest men in the world. We lived very modestly at the time and had little wiggle room in our budget, but we had a happy marriage and a roof over our heads. Filled with gratitude for the good I was acknowledging, I told myself that I didn't need a single present under the tree that year to be happy. In fact, I couldn't think of anything in this world I needed to be any happier.
In my spiritual studies, I had been counting my spiritual treasures, such as the God-given ability to be happy without acquiring goods first, feeling wealthy with few dollars in the bank, and giving love without receiving anything in return. I had pondered a passage in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy that read, "Happiness is spiritual, born of Truth and Love" (page 57).
As I learned to look more to Truth and Love for genuine contentment, feelings of material lack in my life disappeared. I became fully satisfied with what I had, which for me included a special wife and a place to live. And that was enough.
Each of us has blessings to count this holiday season. As we give up a desire for more things and look instead for reasons to be grateful, we'll find contentment with what we already have and enter the New Year feeling full and blessed.