2007-12-05 / Opinion


by Alex McRae

As the Santa Season hits high gear, two questions dominate most people's thoughts: "What will I give?" and "What will I get?"

In most cases, at least in America, the answers are determined by the space available on the credit card balance. That's the good news ... and the bad. Our national affluence allows givers to deliver like never before, but raises the expectations of recipients to sometimes unrealistic levels.

I remember a recent Christmas when an unexpected financial downturn left a father unable to deliver on a promise. He felt awful. His daughter's response to a Christmas letdown didn't help.

The father had promised the girl a new car. He had to settle for a used one, and his daughter let him know she wasn't just unhappy, but "embarrassed" that her peers would all be driving nicer cars. Don't look for that syndrome to change anytime soon. And expect people to keep stretching their financial limits to please those they love. But maybe they shouldn't. Maybe we could all do more by doing less.

I was just reminded of this time-honored approach to giving by an unexpected source ... Smithsonian Magazine. The subject of the article was not a wellknown philanthropist, but Gen. Robert E. Lee, who rose to command all Confederate forces in the War Between the States.

The article reported that five years ago, two steamer trunks belonging to Lee's daughter, Mary Custis Lee, were discovered in the basement of the Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Company in Alexandria, Virginia. The trunks had remained there unnoticed since Mary Lee stored them over a year before her death in 1918.

Among the trunks' contents were two dozen letters from Gen. Lee to his daughter.

One letter was dated Dec. 25, 1961, just months after Lee's home overlooking the Potomac River was occupied by Union troops. Mary Lee had just written her father advising him that she and the rest of family were in a difficult position and asking for his advice.

Lee could have cursed the Union, vowed revenge or moved heaven and earth to find suitable housing for his displaced family.

Instead, he offered his daughter these words:

"In your houseless condition I hope you will make yourself contented & useful."

Then, Lee made a suggestion that seems remarkable considering the circumstances. He told his daughter to ..."Occupy yourself in aiding those more helpless than yourself."

The sentiment wasn't original, but surely there isn't a better message to spread at Christmas time. It might do us all some good to spend a few dollars or minutes on a total stranger. And do it face to face.

This is the most generous country in the world. At this time each year, service and charitable organizations line up to ask for help to create a brighter Christmas for those in need. Time after time, millions respond with donations of cash, goods and time.

Once Christmas clears the calendar, most of us will go back to business as usual until the next cry for help arrives.

But instead of crowding our compassion into a month, imagine stretching the season of service into a year-long or even a lifelong effort.

It wouldn't take much. And sometimes, it doesn't cost a dime.

Take a minute one day to help someone cross the street or climb a flight of stairs. Carry someone's mail from the box to the door on a rainy day. Visit a nursing home, ask which resident has no local relatives and spend 30 minutes with a total stranger. It will do you both a world of good.

Christmas is coming. If you're still puzzled over what to give, a good way to start solving your problem is by helping someone else solve theirs. (Send your email comments to: alex@ newnan.com)

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