Christmas is a time of giving. It’s the season of merriness, warmth and good eats, but most of all, it’s about generosity.
Depending on how you were raised, the generosity presents itself in the form of God sending his son to us on earth, Santa traveling around the world in a night to give gifts to all the little boys and girls, or your basic warm-hearted gift exchange.
But aside from these physical representations of love, we also express our generosity with our time, energy and thoughts.
It’s that last one I’ve been thinking about recently: expressing generosity with our thoughts—or better said, our interpretations.
Think about it: we have a thousand different thoughts running through our mind throughout the day—about ourselves, a situation or those around us.
Something is said or done and then we interpret it a certain way.
There’s no experience to which we don’t assign a subconscious interpretation.
For example, even the word “hello” can be interpreted so many different ways. It can be a neutral “hello” (just introducing my presence) a sarcastic “hellooooo” (where the heck have you been, jerk) or an excited “hello!” (it’s been forever since we’ve seen each other, I miss you).
Although written differently here, they very well may have been delivered in the exact same way yet have the potential to result in different interpretations. And those interpretations are linked with a subsequent emotional reaction. We react based on what we think the situation calls for. If we read the situation as aggressive or accusatory, we react accordingly.
However, some of those subconscious interpretations are pretty negative—or worse, just plain wrong!
This concept is most clearly seen in a parent-child dynamic. Imagine a typical scene in many houses across the world:
Little Marco is playing with some lego (a recent birthday gift) and having a grand ole time. He’s made a castle, a moat and one, two, THREE majestic boats. He sits back and surveys his handiwork, nodding his head in satisfaction.
Enter: Dad, aka joykill. He is the bearer of some unfortunate news: it’s time to clean up the lego because guests are coming over.
What, tear down this incredible masterpiece?? Marco can’t handle the injustice of it and screams: I hate you!
Now, Dad can either take those words at face value and believe that his son does indeed hate him. Or, he can do what parents all over the world are experts at: understand that the words/actions of the child come from some place more complicated (ie. his investment in his project, the distress of the subsequent interruption and his lack of ability to properly and civilly express his frustration).
Parents are exceedingly generous with their interpretations as they are dealing with somewhat unreasonable children. However, children grow up to be adults who—let’s be honest—often have those same unreasonable, emotional reactions.
Once we reach adulthood, people stop giving us the benefit of the doubt. They expect us to be conscious managers of our emotional distress. They expect us to properly express our frustration, anger and sorrow.
That would be ideal but…most of us aren’t that skilled!
We take things out on other people; we snap, we shout, we pout.
In a world where a lot of what we say and do are expressions of unconscious pain and desire—often inappropriately or negatively expressed—what can we do to be more loving with those around us?
Also, how can we increase our own level of peace by understanding that not everything is personal?
We can be generous with our interpretations. We can understand that most things aren’t even about us. This argument isn’t really about us leaving the dishes in the sink, it’s about an inconsiderate ex or a demanding parent in their past.
(Although it very well could be about the dishes in the sink. Don’t slack on your part of the household chores!)
We can understand that they maybe had a tough day at work, a stressful exchange with their boss, or a tough childhood of bullying.
That doesn’t justify hurtful actions and we should all better manage difficult emotions; however, the lesson here is this: a lot of what people say and do can come off pretty crappy, but we have control over how we interpret it.
So with the realization that everyone has a past and an active thought life of their own, we can make our lives more peaceful by realizing “hey, this isn’t even about me!” We can then proceed to support the person in front of us through their journey (and practice managing our own emotional reactions in the meantime).
So, this holiday season, instead of just giving gifts, be generous with your interpretations. Be intentionally generous and see how it promotes peace and improves relationships.
PS. I was introduced to this concept a few months back, although it was in the context of romantic relationships. It was beautifully expressed by modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippet. If you get a chance, you should check it out!