What exactly does the word, “gift,” mean to you?
I’ve been dwelling on this questions recently. We make our Christmas lists or tell people what we want for our birthday and guess what — we get exactly what we expected. We request and we receive, and this beautiful concept of “gift” is slowly being reduced to a shopping list or concierge service. And really, that’s too bad. Because a gift should be so much more than the fulfillment of an expectation.
There’s a beautiful backstory to the book Surprised By Joy, by renowned author and philologist, C.S. Lewis. The book is ostensibly about coming to faith and how belief will come upon a person in unexpected ways. But the inspiration for the work came not only from the author’s own faith journey, but also from meeting a woman named Joy.
If you’ve seen the film, Shadowlands, you already know the story. An aging professor, Lewis, has made peace with his bachelor life and has settled into the routine of an Oxford don. Then into the midst of his satisfying and acceptable lifestyle, comes an American woman, Joy Gresham, who sweeps him off his feet, captures his heart and surprises him with a joy he never thought would be his. (Obviously, the irony of her name was not lost on a man who studied words for a living.)
I won’t spoil the rest for those of you who have not seen the film, but this meeting of Joy and Lewis has always represented for me the true meaning of the word, “gift.”
At it’s heart, the best gifts are a surprise. They are unexpected. They come when you aren’t looking for them. And even if the gift doesn’t sweep you off your feet or reduce you to a puddle of tears, as it did with Lewis, its capacity to touch your heart is in the understanding that someone was thinking about you when you were occupied with other concerns.
I have spent far too much of my life searching for the gifts I thought I needed. Whether it was electronics or jobs or even love, I’ve tried again and again to engineer situations so that I could achieve my expectations and receive the gifts I thought I deserved. But in this seeking I’ve not only created unsatisfying situations and relationships, I’ve also thwarted the ability of the people who cared most to fully express their own appreciation of me.
The adage, “It is better to give, than to receive,” is not just a platitude about giving without expectation of receiving back. It’s an understanding that the joy of a gift is giving away your control to another, whether that be a person, the god of your understanding or simply the universe, so that this “other” can enjoy you fully. This is where the anonymous groups get things so right. They say focus on giving away what you know about the program and a miracle will happen — you’ll find yourself with everything you need and the gift of sobriety.
We place a premium on control in the world today. We don’t like surprises. We like plans and a guided future. We like being in the know and to demand our share of the pie. And in that place we live our comfortable, vanilla lives. But when we leave behind our expectations for ourselves, in the midst of the struggles and the fears and the uncertainties and pain of living life on life’s terms, we often find something — or someone — that we never expected. And while our controlled expectations of what we wanted for our lives may have been good ones, we are suddenly confronted by an expression of love we never thought someone could feel for us, or a life more rich than we ever could have imagined.
Today I revel in the mystery and magic of a good gift given. In the midst of giving away my heart and my talents to others, I have been surprised by a gift given to me. I have been overcome. And if I had been busy planning how to get what I wanted or deserved instead of giving freely, I may have never encountered my own Joy.