One December when my brother and I were around ten and twelve years old, our mother enlisted us in a holiday good deed she was doing. She wouldn't tell us who we were doing it for, and after we got caught up in our task itself we stopped wondering. When we were finished, we went back to thinking about other things. But on the afternoon of Christmas Eve someone came by our house with a pot of turkey soup to thank our mother, and we realized who we'd been doing that small good deed for.
The first lesson from that moment was immediate and overwhelming: we didn't think it so much as feel it, like a powerful physical reflex. We both knew right away that we were never talking about this again to anyone, ever: not even to each other. We were sorry that we knew. (If the version of the story I told above is vague and lacking in detail, well, good.) People are entitled to their privacy and their dignity. I could not have explained that in words, then, but I understood. And I remembered that lesson later, not because I talked about it, but because it provided the example that kept me from speaking about other things when I should not.
The other lesson I learned that week came more slowly, and I tried to refuse it. My brother and I did not want to eat the turkey soup.
We didn't especially like the soup. We preferred our mother's chicken soup (still a gold standard as far as I'm concerned), and there was no shortage of things to eat in our parents' house during the holidays. And anyway, the person who had given us the soup would never know whether or not we ate it.
But our parents insisted. Of course, we had to eat the soup. It was not because we liked it, or needed it ourselves. It was not because the person who had given it to us would know. It was because we would know. Eating that soup was part of our obligation.
I was nowhere close to understanding this then, but that turkey soup taught me the difficult lesson of gratitude. And I owed the person who gave us the soup gratitude. I owed that person the opportunity to give something back. That wasn't merely a social obligation; it could not be satisfied through a polite pretense. It was a moral obligation and it had to be made real. I really had to eat the soup. I had to take it into my body, and accept the gift honestly.
It is better to give than to receive, they say. But you do an unkindness when you do not allow someone else to give to you. And when the person doesn't have much to give, you do them wrong to refuse their gift or deny them gratitude. It's not always an obvious lesson, and I didn't find it an easy one, but I am grateful to the person who taught it to me.
cross-posted from Dagblog
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