I’ve had many years when this time of year was the worst time of the year for me. Especially from 1990 to 1997. Those were the first seven years of my poker-playing career. I went broke in December every year. Around 1993, I noticed the pattern, vowing to be careful when the trees went bare. But it didn’t matter. Winter would come, and I’d run bad for a day or two, and that would make me play bad for a week or two, and ugh, I’d get despondent, desensitized, depressed. I’d keep playing, and I’d keep losing, and I’d beat myself up for playing bad, and I’d fall into a funk that made no sense and had no hope.
Just when it couldn’t get any worse, it did. On came the pressure. The pressure to buy presents for my family. I was supposed to be generous. And I really wanted to. But I had no money. I was supposed to have on a happy face. But I was fucking miserable. Can’t you just leave me alone? I don’t want to play that game now. Please, not now. Don’t march me through that paltry patronizing parade of pomp and presents again. And don’t even tell me I should be grateful. Not again. That was the worst of all. Listening to little speeches about how great it is just to be alive. Go fuck yourself.
Looking back at those woeful holiday seasons from a dozen years later, I think I can see what was really going on. The problem – as it so often is – was the assumptions that ruled my life, my thinking, and my actions. I assumed that Christmas pressure was real. I assumed that my obligations to shop were so important that it was right and proper that my happiness should depend on my ability and willingness to… to what… buy my dad a tie? I assumed that if I bought stuff and wrapped it up, I deserved to be happy. And if I couldn’t, or didn’t, or if I did and I didn’t feel good about it, then that meant I was a pathetic failure and I deserved to be unhappy.
I assumed that my actual worth was somehow related to my financial worth and the subsequent purchasing power it gave me.
I assumed that in order to give, I had to give a thing.
It never occurred to me to question all these bogus assumptions. That’s because I didn’t even know they were there. Do you ever stop and think, “I assume that if I stand in the rain I will get wet?” Of course not. Some assumptions are so imbedded in us that we don’t even think about them. That’s how it was with my assumptions about giving at Christmas. No awareness of them whatsoever. Total blindness. The result was that by putting so much attention on giving things, I was unable to give myself. But of course I couldn’t see that. Like I said, I was blind.
Since then, my vision has improved. The way I see it now is that the most important present I can give is my presence. Whether I’m talking on the phone with someone, or emailing, or in the same room, I just need to show up, completely – as in not be somewhere else, mentally.
This applies to the moment of physical gifting too. When my mother-in-law opens the gift I bought for her, I shouldn’t be worrying about if she’ll like it. When my brother opens the book I chose for him, I shouldn’t be wondering if he’ll read it. When my wife reads out loud the poem I wrote for her, I shouldn’t be spinning around in my head, thinking that she might think it’s stupid, thinking that she might be disappointed when she realizes I didn’t buy her anything, thinking, thinking, thinking. No. I should just relax, and hear the sound of her voice. I should just settle myself, and listen to the meaning she puts into the words. (And be ready to hand her a hanky.)
As it happens, the best gift I can give – full attention – is the least expensive of all.