Christmas, as it is celebrated in predominantly Christian countries, is a time of giving. The gifts people exchange are meant to be reminiscent of the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought to the Christ child by the Magi, the mystical kings of distant oriental lands.

All too often, we fall into the trap of thinking that the gifts are the focus; we feel obligated to give gifts to certain people at Christmas time merely because of social norms, or may even want to give gifts but are not sure whether the recipient is comfortable receiving them. How will the person react? What is the appropriate price range? Will others feel left out? These social rules take away from the simple act of giving and throw the emphasis on the material objects themselves, as well as on the social status of the giver.

When removed from the glare of social enlightenment, gift giving takes on an entirely different hue. It becomes apparent that you don’t have to actually give a material gift at all. Gifts can range from the physical to the purely emotional or even spiritual, and the higher the level on which the gift is given, the greater it actually is. When a person hand crafts a gift for another, she is really giving of herself and her time; the physical manifestation of the gift is merely the product of the work done in the name of another person. This is what often makes hand made gifts so special to the recipients. They think of the work that went into the gift in their honor, something that is completely intangible and may never even be vocalized.

Given that, it seems that the true gift here is in the process, not the product. This is a higher level of gift giving than the merely physical/material/social level. There is nothing to say that this only need happen during a single time of the year, however. Perhaps one of the best gifts a person can give is to volunteer time to an organization, individual or cause that they support. I have found that I enjoy volunteering time to non-profit organizations like the National Sjogren’s Syndrome Association or the San Juan Board of Cooperative Services. I identify with the goals of these organizations, and have spent significant time with each in an effort to help them promote their causes. In both cases, part of my motivation is to repay some of the kindness that these organizations showed me or my family in the past. There is a certain element of peace that comes from reciprocation like this; I feel I have given something back to people who have given to me. This peace is not present in such purity when I exchange material gifts with others; it seems to be more of a spiritual thing.

Many have speculated that giving of ourselves is a way to engage in spiritual healing, patching the holes in our soul. I can understand that. There have been times in my life that I have not felt good about myself and helping others has helped me get back on track. I think this is probably one of the purposes behind including community service in criminal sentences, but I’m not sure it works if the motivation to help doesn’t originate within the person. In such cases, the energy spent may actually translate into anger, resentment or hatred for the person imposing the sentence, which does not help the psyche of the sentenced at all.

There does come a time when it is appropriate to say “No,” and it is important to acknowledge that time so that one does not burn out. If I push myself too hard in helping an organization or individual, I find that the purity of purpose and the energy exchange do not happen as often. Occasionally, I need time away from volunteer actions — and sometimes from particular people — to restore the drive to help. At times like this, I know I am not helping anyone, particularly myself. I need time away.

A moderate use of “yes” and “no” will do wonders to help us balance our lives. I tend to err in saying “yes” too often; I have to be careful not to let frustration build up and worm its way into the projects on which I am working.

How do I know what to volunteer for? Look back in your past and identify something that you feel was successful and helped you develop into the position you are now. Often, this is a good way to zero in quickly on turning points in your life. For example, I feel that being on the Knowledge Bowl teams in junior high and high school contributed more to my education than anything else I did in school. When I graduated high school I immediately started volunteering to help setup the local competitions and act as a question reader for them as well. By engaging as a question reader and organizer, I helped to positively influence the lives of those younger than me, reciprocating the effect that I received from such great people as Bill Brown, Bob Sauer, Barry Owen, Steve Thweatt, Marietta Sears, Nick Rampone and many others. For the last several years, I have not been involved in Knowledge Bowl, mostly because I lived in Arizona, where there is unfortunately little interest in academic competition of this nature. However, now that I am back in Colorado, I intend to volunteer as a reader again for the Colorado Department of Education.

Often, the greatest gift we can give is our time. It can transcend material or monetary offerings and help to heal our inner selves, too. If you have never volunteered your time (say, at the local library, if you loved books as a child) I urge you to try it. You will meet fascinating people with many of your same interests and learn how there really is time in your life to help others, even though you have always said there wasn’t. You may even affect repairs on your soul. Give it a shot. Gifts are not just for Christmas, you know.

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