Have You Ever Been Upset by a Well-Intentioned Gift? Acted Ungratefully?

React to the idea, not the gift itself.

Posted Mar 30, 2010

One of my resolutions is to Imitate a spiritual master, and my spiritual master is St. Therese of Lisieux.

St. Therese left behind only one extended record of her views about her “Little Way,” in her spiritual memoir, The Story of a Soul. I’ve read this book at least five times; it’s extraordinarily powerful.

Several times, I’ve been very struck by a passage, but not really understood why it caught my attention. Then, slowly, over time, its meaning unfolds for me.

The other day, I suddenly understood why I’d been thinking about the following passage. When I looked back at it, I saw to my surprise that it also contains my favorite line in all of Therese’s work: “for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

To set the context for the entire passage: Therese has been ordered to write her spiritual memoir. She’s in her early twenties; she’s very weak, because she’s dying of tuberculosis; she’s sitting in a wheelchair in the convent garden, trying to write.

When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits to the doctor, everything is discussed; to tell the truth, this doesn’t last a long time, but there is more than one good charitable Sister, and all of a sudden another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems…

…when telling you about all my adventures in the groves of Carmel; I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed; this should not make me laugh or amuse me; however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. For example, here is a hay worker who is just leaving me after having said very compassionately: “Poor little Sister, it must tire you out writing like that all day long.” “Don’t worry,” I answer, “I appear to be writing very much, but really I am writing almost nothing.” “Very good!” she says, “but just the same, I am very happy we are doing the haying since this always distracts you a little.” In fact, it is such a great distraction for me…that I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing.

St. Therese is showing the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, instead of responding to the gift itself. She doesn’t want to be distracted; she wants to write. She doesn’t want a bouquet of wild flowers in her lap; she wants to see them growing. But she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

A gift, lovingly offered, should be met with delight. One memory that makes me squirm is that once, several years ago, my husband brought home a big gardenia bush. I love gardenias. I fretted about the present, though, because the plant was so big.

Inside, my thoughts were about my own limitations, “What a big plant! Where will I put it to display it properly? I’m sure to kill it in just a few days, as I always do, and that will be so upsetting. What a waste!” etc.

Gifts, I’ve noticed, often strike strange chords in us. As Andy Warhol observed, “You can never predict what little things in the way somebody looks or talks or acts will set off peculiar emotional reactions in other people.”

I didn’t respond with the enthusiasm that such a thoughtful gift should have provoked. My husband knew I loved gardenias, so he bought me the biggest one he could find! I should’ve taken care to appear happy and especially to be so. What a thoughtful gift, what a wonderful gesture.

Now I think of it every time I see a gardenia.

Have you ever been made angry or upset by a well-intentioned gift? Not a passive-aggressive gift, like running shoes meant to be a hint, but a loving gift? Since I've become aware of this (very recently, I have to confess), I'm making a big effort not to let my reactions to the gift itself seep into my reaction to the idea of the gift.

* 2010 Happiness Challenge: I should have a video, but I'm doing four videos per month, so the next video will be in April. Also, instead of adding a video to a day's writing, I'm going to do separate posts, just for the videos, which will run on Tuesdays. Yes, it took me three months, but I finally realized that I was cramming too much into those posts.

If you're new, here’s information on the 2010 Happiness Challenge (or watch the intro video). It’s never too late to start! You’re not behind, jump in right now, sign up here. For more ideas, check out the Happiness Project site on Woman’s Day.

About the Author

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project and Better than Before, New York Times bestseller that explains how to form good habits and break bad ones. 

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