I carefully pulled back the strings on the shiny bow of the hand-wrapped Christmas gift. I tore the wrapping paper gently from around it’s soft body. The paper crumpled easily in my hand, and I tossed it on the table. With both hands, I unfolded the present and shook it out, pressing out the wrinkles against my body.
There it was. A Hawaiian shirt of kaleidoscopic colors so big in size I could have fit two of me in there. Living in Hawaii, I now realize that men’s Hawaiian shirts are the virtual man muumuu of the sandy-toed crowd. Though I love their colors and creativity, these shirts rarely fit my body type. It was a generous gift, but what on Earth was I going to do with it? And should I have gotten my friend a gift, too?
At some point in your life, like me, you have probably received a holiday gift from someone only to realize you didn’t even think of getting them something. And worse, maybe the gift you received was something you really didn’t need or want.
When this moment happens, it usually leaves me feeling really uncomfortable. In fact, much of the holiday season is peppered with this discomfort. I used to call it awkward, but as I now understand it, the primary emotion is guilt.
In the insightful video “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns, it’s explained that most of our consumerist products are made in a highly wasteful process, with the intention of lasting only 6 months. Then, into the trash! This is having a profound impact on our global society in many ways, and if you ask me, it is a form of collective madness. I have long pined to keep the heart of the holiday, and lose the consumer gift obsession. Lately, I’ve had just that opportunity.
For the past 4 years, I’ve been quite removed from my old city-boy routine of the fun frenzy of holiday shopping, party-going and the like. I live in a remote area on an island in the middle of the Pacific, so the pressure to keep up has been significantly reduced (audible sigh of relief!).
Christmas feels old-fashioned here, yet strangely universal and interfaith. It harkens me back to a time before the rise of marketing and abject consumerism, before the preposterous notion of a “a war on Christmas” was drummed up, where we just celebrate on the day of, with a tree popping up maybe the day before.
It’s a wonderful and refreshing experience that has put the spirit back in the season for me, allowing any guilt or heaviness around this holiday to evaporate. It’s now about the people, and our connection, and about being thankful. With this newfound happiness, I’ve been able to reflect on the entire ritual of holiday gift-giving.
Rule #1 in yoga: The Body Never Lies.
Guilt is an insidious, burdensome, strange emotion. When I feel it in my body, I feel it in my gut, a gut wrenching feeling. It is also deeply connected to my heart. I feel a heaviness in my heart, like feeling dread, like energy is being sucked from my heart. Perhaps this is why so many people write about the toxicity of guilt and counsel us to let it go.
I’ve heard it said that guilt is useless, and in many situations, I understand that. But are there benefits to guilt? Imagine a guy went out and decided to do something dastardly, like throw a cat in a river. I guess if he went out and killed a cat, one would hope that his human capacity to feel, would feel guilt.
So how does exploring guilt apply to the holiday shopping frenzy? Well, I realized, upon reflection, that the holidays have always guilted me into a shopping frenzy. I worried too much, then spent too much as I obsessed about getting the perfect gifts for my circle of friends.
But we can turn our guilt into a gift we won’t want to return. As we mature spiritually, we can realize that we do not need to feed this beast called guilt, but rather, heed it’s wisdom. Stop. Just stop being unconscious about giving people “stuff” to feel better about ourselves. Listen to what our hearts are saying, and then have the courage to go do that.
Feel where emotions like guilt reside in your body. Make decisions that are good for your nervous system, immune system and planet earth. Give wisely this year. Your families and friends will feel it. Make the holidays about heart connection, rather than consumer debt. This gift will stick around long after the holiday decorations are stuffed back in their dusty boxes.