Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Last month, I wrote about the Patterson family Christmas of 1956. I shared how I was able to find joy during a time when we had few, if any, presents or other “things.” Many of you wrote back that the tale reminded you of similar times where you too were able to stumble on Christmas despite your challenging financial circumstances. Thank you for your kind and heart-warming reaction.
One of you wrote that after sharing the story with a friend, she replied that she had already received four similar stories that lauded the joys associated with poverty—and if this were true, why don’t we seek poverty all of the time? I can understand the response. The last thing I wanted to suggest was that the poverty itself was something worth seeking.
I’m reminded of when I was first married and attending graduate school in Palo Alto, California. Each week my wife, three children, and I went to church with a couple dozen other young struggling student couples along with a hundred or so wealthy congregants who lived on the edge of campus. These folks of extraordinary means would leave their estates in the foothills and drive their luxury German cars to church where they would then tell those of us who were living in tiny boxes called student housing just how lucky we were. They would most sincerely explain—often with tears in their eyes—how they fondly remembered their college years and recalled them as the best time of their life.
My reaction was predictable. “Really?” I thought to myself. “These are the best years? I study endlessly. I have very little time left for recreation or hobbies. Every month I worry about making ends meet. When our old jalopy breaks down, we go without something in order to pay for the repair. These are the best years of my life? Tell me it isn’t so!”
Some thirty years later, when my church assignment had me speaking to a group of young married college students, I listened intently as other older speakers shared the predictable message of “These are the best years of your life!” When it came my turn to speak, I stood up and said, “I’ve had money and I’ve not had money, and to be frank—I prefer having money.” (This brought a chuckle.)
“And as far as college years being the best years of my life, I do remember how great it was to be young and energetic and studying full time with some of the world’s best thinkers. I recall playing with my children between classes and then catching the campus bus for a ride to the psychology building where I listened to the world-famous scholar Solomon Asch as he reviewed his earlier studies of compliance and independence. As I sat and took in the words of the world’s best, I knew how lucky I was.
“I also remember the unrelenting stress of not having enough money—of not being able to give my children as much as I would have liked—the missed lessons, the thinner coats, the oatmeal instead of eggs. In fact, when I finally finished six years of graduate school, took a job, and we bought and cooked our very first chuck roast, my kids fought over who got the drumstick. They didn’t know any better. All they had ever eaten was chicken.”
So, some of the aspects of those college years were indeed wonderful, other aspects . . . not so much. With this in mind, I want to affirm that I never intended my story as an endorsement of poverty. I only wanted to say that even when times are tough (and yes, tough times come with sacrifices and suffering), you can still find joy in the simple things.
This has certainly been true for me. Going into this season, I can already tell you what my favorite memories will be. They won’t be the gifts sitting wrapped under my tree at home. They’ll be the memories of the time I’ve spent with loved ones—playing games, telling stories, and sharing hand-made gifts.
I’m already working on this. At our recent family Christmas party, we gathered at my daughter Christine’s house and sang carols and played games while the young cousins shared simple presents. As promised, I read the story of our 1956 Christmas, and at the end, I gave each of my children and grandchildren a small package of peanut brittle my wife and I had just made. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.
We also ooh-ed and ahh-ed over a hand-crafted alphabet book one granddaughter had made for her 18-month-old cousin; and everyone applauded and cheered as another granddaughter read a poem she had carefully composed on the computer. The poem described the joys of the season as viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old. As I sat and took in her innocent words of wonder and encouragement, I couldn’t have been more proud.
So no, I don’t encourage poverty as a means of finding the true holiday spirit. But I do stand by the claim that often, the things that matter most can be shared by all. Time devoted to thoughtful conversation, stories told across generations, and acts of unconditional love are all free. They’re also as precious as gold.
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