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Zen and the Art of Giving

Zen and the Art of Giving

By John Christmann

Even as a grown man, I still have trouble with the concept that it is better to give than receive. This has always seemed like an imponderable Zen Koan to me, like the sound of one hand clapping or the meaning behind Donald Trump’s hair. If I study the riddle long enough, the answer will reveal itself to me and I will be enlightened. But as my wife often reminds me, enlightenment is probably not in my future. You see, like a lot of men I know, I am missing the gift gene. This is not to say that I don’t know how to give, it simply means that I don’t know what to give. When challenged by gift ideas, my mind is like an Etch A Sketch in an earthquake.

To be honest, it is far more pleasurable receiving gifts. Call me selfish, but I would rather receive a billion dollars than earn it and give it away, just as I would rather receive an ugly sweater than suffer the humiliation of buying one for somebody else. I don’t think I am alone here-at least among men who are short a few chemicals in their DNA generosity sequence. I was probably eight or nine when I was first exposed to the riddle of giving. It was over the holidays and my mom informed that it was better to give than receive. I was drinking eggnog at the time, and I laughed so hard it exploded out my nose. Giving better than receiving? Who was she trying to kid? At that age, the only thing I could ever remember giving anyone was a headache; which was probably why I received the giving lecture.

It wasn’t until after I got married that I finally discovered the secret to heart-felt gift giving: nice jewelry. I learned this after a lot of coaching from my wife and one rather large misstep that involved a gift-wrapped Dust Buster. Given my history then, it is surprising that I recently found myself lecturing my own children on the importance of giving. This occurred after they set the kitchen table on fire during a candle lighting ceremony to celebrate Kwanzaa, Chanukah, and Christmas all at the same time. “What is the significance of all these celebrations?” I quizzed them, blowing away fragrant wisps of smoke. They looked at each other briefly, before shouting in unison, “to get more presents!”

“Giving is not about presents,” I told them, “it is about showing someone that you care by sharing something of yourself, whether it is something of value, assistance, or just plain thoughtfulness.” And then I left them with the puzzling words of my youth: It is far better to give, than to receive. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. As an unenlightened man, I didn’t really expect them to. But sitting at the table splattered in smoldering candle wax, I realized that on some level I do enjoy the act of giving.

I give to my children everyday. Their welfare and safety is more important than my own. Their physical and emotional needs come before mine. I happily give up the food from my plate if they are still hungry and my precious space in bed if they cannot sleep. I live to give them confidence, to give them choices, to give them chances to do things I never could. And sometimes I give them gifts for no other reason than to show them how special they are. And what do I get from all of this selfless giving? I receive the unburdened joy of snowy smiles, the urgent grasp of arms that can barely reach around my waist, and the warmth of small bodies that curl up in my lap. I receive more love than I can manage. And during the holidays I receive the unbridled excitement of kids anticipating more presents than I can possibly give. No, I don’t care what they say; it is far better to receive.

Digital Momories

I am the official photographer in my house. Ever since my children were born I have been the master of point and click, first with the digital camera, then with the mouse. As a result, I have hundreds of file folders on my computer filled with thousands of digital photos with intriguing identifications like, December or DCS1211. I have collected so many digital images over the years that I recently purchased a backup drive to store them all. By the time the transfer was complete it was out of warranty.

Most of these photos are of family and friends. The few photos where I am present my children snapped, and my head is either out of the frame or is blocked by a large UFO which looks suspiciously like a finger passing over the lens. In fact, the only image I have of my face is one I took a couple of years ago when I renewed my passport. I shot it in the mirror holding the camera at my chest. The outline of my head is just visible within the blinding white reflection of the camera flash. Unfortunately the passport agency rejected my self-portrait and shot one for me. “But I look just like Jesus!” I said in my defense as a photographer.

I can see it now. One day my grandchildren will be ogling over digitally enhanced images of holidays past. They will marvel that their parents were once kids too. And then, after awhile, a puzzled expression will creep across their faces and they will ask, why wasn’t Grandpa with you over the holiday? And my adult children will reply, who do you think took all the pictures? And the young ones will pause in the glow of endless electronic memories parading before their eyes and wonder, why did he take so many? This holiday season, whether you celebrate Chanukah or Christmas, please shoot responsibly and remember this: it is far better to make memories than it is to record them.

Dad’s Point of View – John Christmann is a freelance writer and all around good guy. He lives in Summit, NJ with his very tolerant wife and three children. His favorite color is plaid and he is afraid of machines and small dogs. You can check out his unique take on parenting at or fill up his inbox at