A personal vignette.
In August of 2001, the company I worked for was caught in the collapse of the technology sector, the so-called “dot-bomb” where heavily overvalued tech stocks took a beating in a massive market correction. The effect was that a lot of technology companies simply shut down, and the survivors chose to shed a lot of employees through the middle of that year. I was one of them.
I got a good severance package and had small lump of cash I got from cashing in stock options (required as a condition of the separation package), so I felt no special panic. Sure, there were a lot of tech people looking for jobs, but I could afford to wait out the first rush and pick up a decent job after the initial panic passed and the industry inevitably recovered. In the mean time I had freelance work and was starting a small business.
As the holiday season arrived, my situation looked far worse than it was. Yes, I had been out of work for nearly four months, but our cash flow was just fine and I felt no particular squeeze. No hardship here.
So when a knock came at our door in mid-December of 2001, I was more than surprised to see a small crew of Deacons from our ward carrying boxes. Two were filled with food—a large turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cans of cranberries and vegetables, juices and sodas, cookies and cakes, breads, candies, and a huge jar of hot cocoa mix. Others brought in boxes filled with wrapped gifts for every member of the family.
The young men brought the boxes in, set them on the floor in our living room, and whisked right back out again as they shouted a cheery Merry Christmas. Their adviser shook my hand and told me that if I needed anything to let him know. Then the door closed and they were gone.
It should have been a wonderful moment, evidence of the good hearts of my friends and neighbors reaching out to a family facing employment challenges at the holidays. It should have warmed my soul and brought me a feeling of peace and thanksgiving and a recognition of the goodness in humanity.
Instead, it made me mad. I wasn’t a louse who couldn’t care for his own family. I wasn’t a loafer who relied on the charity of others for basic needs. We already had a huge number of presents under the tree, and were planning on doing more (and spending more) on Christmas activities than ever before. I had just donated three full-sized turkeys to a local food drive. I didn’t need other peoples’ children to come into my house, judge me as a deadbeat, and give my family a treat that they believed I was unable to deliver on my own. I didn’t take charity—I gave it.
What they did was disrespectful. It was presumptuous. It was wrong.
Tithing settlement was the next day and I explained to the bishop in very clear terms how I felt. I appreciated the effort, but I made it clear that it was simply unnecessary and they would be better served working with families who actually needed charity. More importantly, I lectured him on being sensitive to a father’s right to be the provider of the feast and the inappropriateness of sending other peoples’ children into my home to prove their social superiority to my children—and to me. Donate if you must, but deliver quietly, privately, and without fanfare.
Good intent. Bad execution. Keep up the good work, but pay better attention next time.
The bishop took it all in stride, thanked me for my input, asked if we needed anything (I assured him we did not), and that was that.
A year later, things had changed somewhat for me. I was still out of a job. It turns out the bounce-back in the tech sector was small and slow in coming. My small business failed, contract work was getting harder to come by, and the job market was weak all over. I’d used up my savings and much of my 401k, and had started selling assets to get cash. We’d been living on inexpensive food from the Church canneries and donations of game meat from friends (elk stroganoff is a treat that’s hard to explain; I don’t recommend it), and we had been forced to ask family members for cash to make the mortgage payment.
So when a knock came at our door in mid-December of 2002, I was very grateful to see my bishop standing there, but this time he was alone. No boxes, no gifts, no flurry of activity; just the bishop. The shame was physical for me–burning in my face, an ache in my stomach, a sudden tightness in my chest that made it hard to breathe, and harder to speak. Not shame at being in need, but shame at how proud and arrogant and ungrateful I had been just a year earlier. Shame at the shabby treatment I had given to those whose only intent was to serve. Shame that I had been unwilling to see or appreciate that gift.
I bowed my head and invited him in. He asked if the ward might be permitted to help us out and I thanked him profusely for the offer and apologized for my proud ungratefulness the previous year. He smiled and shook my hand and said there was no need. Later that night we received gift cards to grocery stores and department stores. Our Christmas festivities were paid for entirely out of gifts from friends.
I ended up getting a job the following February and doing just fine such that the situation didn’t repeat itself. But every year around this time I think about those two successive Christmases that were so similar and yet so very, very different for me.
We hear a lot about how Christmas is about giving, not receiving. I suppose that’s true, though I can say that the spirit of receiving is a very real and important thing—especially when we celebrate the birth of He who gave us the greatest gift of all, a gift that we must learn to receive gratefully and humbly.
In an odd twist, after nearly a decade of prosperity I’m again looking for work in a down economy after losing my job to a massive layoff. I’m not panicked yet, but I am wary and a bit nervous. I have some project work, but am still looking for a full-time position.
Over the past week we have received wonderful gifts from friends, from family, from neighbors, and from the ward. We have been blessed by the good hearts of many, and have been humbly grateful to receive gifts of charity offered in the spirit of love and good will. It is a great blessing to both give and to receive in that spirit, and for both circumstances I am grateful.
Sometimes the world can be a frightening place. If you will indulge, I would like to offer a semi-narrative from the scriptures that describe my own thoughts (and hopes) during this particular Christmas season.
…Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. (Luke 2:10)
…Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would…redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free. (D&C 128:22)
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)
…he came into the world, even Jesus, to…bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him; (D&C 76:41-42)
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever!… (D&C 128:23)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14)
May the Lord bless you and keep you, in this special season and throughout the years. May we always seek and always find the words that speak truth to our own hearts and minds. And may we then act upon them as evidence of our appreciation for the gifts we receive.