Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Moments That Matter

Tough economic times don’t seem to affect the New York Yankees, who have shelled out more than $400 million in recent days just to sign three baseball players. The Yankees may have ruined the Christmas plans of several other ballclubs in winning the bidding wars for those players, but no one is confusing the Steinbrenner family with Ebenezer Scrooge. No tightwads in the Bronx, that’s for sure.

But for those of us who have struggled with how much is too much in the realm of holiday giving, the Yankees’ decision to overpay for All-Stars encompasses a theme we know quite well. I’ve just said goodnight to my two girls on Christmas Day – a day in which they’ve received more presents than entire villages receive in many third-world countries around the globe. I helped select some of those gifts, and I feel some guilt that I’m helping to spoil my kids, as well as some concern that they’ll grow up to be takers more than givers. I want the joys of giving and receiving to be felt by everyone at this time of year, and in equal amounts. I want my girls to want that, too.

We’ve taken the girls caroling at the homes of elderly folks in our church, and they’ve helped us buy presents for people in need through our church as well. We’ve brought boxes of old toys to thrift stores with the kids in tow, and let them see the process by which their donations can be others’ blessings. I’ve taken them to events run by the community service club at my school, and they’ve watched teen-agers give of their time and energy to improve the lives of others.

They will get it, I’m sure. And my wife and I will figure out how many presents are enough. In the meantime, we snuggle together before bed and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, listening to Linus put it all into perspective, and watching the mean kids find a heart in the end. We watch Charlie as he pays attention to the small details, and we think about the things that matter most.

We think about the moments that bring us together, for those are the gifts we can never replace or exchange. They are always on sale, and at great prices.

I think of the new student I have, who just moved to America from Egypt a couple of months ago. Last week, we looked outside our classroom window to see snow beginning to fall. She walked up to me and said, “Mr. Hynes, I’ve never seen snow before.”

I jumped up from my seat, and called the rest of the class to the front of the room. We all escorted this new student out to the school courtyard. I led her out and she looked up into the white sky. She smiled, and spread out her arms to catch the thick flakes as they fell on her. “I have to get a shovel!” she said to me. I told her she could try to catch them with her tongue as well, to taste them. She said she’d like to try snow angels when she got home.

We stood there for a few more minutes, watching this young woman in her moment of discovery and wonder. It was a true joy to be there, sharing this all with her. It was a joy that no stocking stuffer can provide. As you celebrate the holidays, may you experience many moments like these with those around you. Happy holidays.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Giving

It was no surprise to me that Michael Phelps won Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year.” His record-breaking performances and superhuman abdominal muscles have earned him every letter of that title. But if you had asked me for my pick … well, I would have suggested taking it in a different direction.

I would have chosen the Central Washington University softball team. You might remember them from back in April. The Wildcats were playing against Western Oregon University, trying to keep their season alive. But then Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon smacked the first home run of her career – high school or college – with two runners on base. Tucholsky was thrilled, so much that she missed first base. As she doubled back to touch the bag, she collapsed to the ground with a serious knee injury.

There was no way that Tucholsky could stand up and round the bases. If her teammates picked her up, she’d be called out. If a pinch-runner was called in for her, she’d have to settle for a single. And so, with a golden opportunity to hold Western Oregon to fewer runs than it really deserved, the Central Washington players huddled up and …

Well, they asked the umpire if they could pick Tucholsky up and carry her. The ump said there was no rule against that. So pick her up they did, rounding the bases with her, and allowing her to touch each base.

Tucholsky completed her three-run homer. Western Oregon won the game by two runs, eliminating Central Washington from conference-title contention. The Wildcats’ postseason hopes were lost. But they had won so much more than a ballgame.

Holiday season, 2008: There are people shooting each other in department stores. There are people stampeding a Wal Mart employee to death in their pursuit of big-screen TVs and GPS devices. There are, allegedly, people asking for six-figure holiday presents in exchange for U.S. Senate seats.

It is supposed to be a time of giving. That’s what my parents told me when I was growing up. That’s what I tell my girls. That’s what I see when I look at the students who show up for community-service club meetings in my school, and give of their time and energy. But it is so easy for so many of us to slip into the greed.

America is at a place right now where large numbers of individuals are choosing – or at least considering – the virtues of service and sacrifice. I read of record numbers of young adults applying to Teach for America. I read of teen-agers starting successful non-profits. I hear the president-elect announce plans to present more such service opportunities. When I read of the stampedes and the shootings and the bribe requests, I have to believe that such greed is too weak in the face of compassion.

So as we celebrate the holidays in this most difficult of years for so many families, I look forward to more moments like that softball game in April. It was a brief moment in the lives of these young women, but they won’t forget it. They probably knew it before, but they definitely know now that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. It doesn’t take much to inspire another person to care. Sometimes, you just have to pick a kid up off the infield dirt, and carry her around for a while.