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When we read about people trampled during special store sales, firefighters’ lives lost because the concern for property was so high, or children encouraged to risk brain damage pursuing an elusive dream of wealth from professional sports, we choke on all the sentimentality thick around us this time of year. Who are we kidding? The United States has a reputation for being the most materialistic country in the world. Becoming cynical and negative would be easy.
How can we change the atmosphere around us – a change that just might spread?
One of the greatest gifts we can give is the gift of value—not an HD TV or iPod, but self-worth. Some philosophies hold that we exist in a web of “being” more pervasive than Facebook (if you can imagine that!). We’re all inextricably linked in a way that begins at the quantum level and extends into the spiritual realm. Even if that comment sounds like nonsense to you, you can’t deny that certain people create an atmosphere of happiness around them while others infect their surroundings with gloom. What’s the difference and how can you be a positive force?
The idea is simple: treat everyone around you as a valuable human being. One way is to put yourself in the place of the people you meet–empathize. Instead of complaining to the clerk about how long you had to wait, smile and tell him how impressed you are that he can tolerate so much stress for hours on end. You might even say thank you. How would it feel if someone at work did that for you—appreciated the effort you put in? Okay, nothing would actually change, but wouldn’t you feel the smallest bit brighter?
On a more personal level, one of the finest gifts we can give is listening. That doesn’t mean not talking for a few minutes. It means putting down your cell, looking the other person in the eye (even if the other person is a child or an old codger), and paying attention to what’s being said. If what’s being said is difficult for you to hear because you don’t like the meaning or the person, then you can discipline yourself by attempting to tell the person the basic idea of what you thought you heard. This way, you force yourself to pay attention and you give yourself and the other person a chance to check to see if you truly do understand. It’s amazing how often you don’t.
Understanding is not the same as agreeing. You don’t have to agree to understand. But understanding is a huge gift. How often do we feel misunderstood? When you take the trouble to understand, you’re telling the other person she or he is important. You can explain why you disagree. I can’t guarantee the other person will appreciate your honesty or return your favor, but at least you listened. This effort is especially worthwhile with people who are close to you but with whom you have differences—such as teenagers, children, or relatives. People who feel disconnected are free to act out—date someone else, sneak out at night, lie. When you treat the other person as a responsible adult who deserves the truth, you have a greater chance that the person will reply as an adult.
Gifts we buy are temporary—soon broken or outdated. The gift of respect can pay dividends into the future to the person being respected, to you, and to the society at large. Try it before you mock it.