Getting a gift is always nice. But suppose someone hands you a present inside an old shopping bag. Even if the object in the bag is something you’d been hoping for, you can’t help feeling that the presentation falls a little short. Though the value of the gift may be unaffected by the way it was presented, the lack of “finish” may leave you feeling let down.
Now, suppose someone gives you the same gift neatly wrapped up in pretty paper. This tells you that the gift-giver went to the trouble of selecting said paper and devoting a few precious minutes to the task of wrapping the gift in it. Again, the substance of the gift is unchanged. But the wrapping represents an extra dollop of caring and consideration. Something to warm the heart, over and above the value of the gift itself.
And suppose the beautifully gift-wrapped box also has a big, colorful bow on top, like the proverbial cherry teetering on the apex of a delicious ice-cream sundae. The gift’s essential value is no different than before. But if the way you feel when handed a gift in an old shopping bag is not the same as the way you feel when it is presented lovingly wrapped, the addition of the big bow takes the act of giving to a whole new level.
It’s not just the aesthetics that makes you smile. It’s the way that bow seems to announce: “I care about you. And because I care, I went the extra mile with this gift. I put myself out to finish the job in the best way possible.”
Every act of kindness that we do is like a gift. It doesn’t matter if the kindness takes an unassuming form, like a simple “good morning” in passing, or if it wears a much more elaborate guise. Kindness is kindness. The essential act is the same. But how is that kindness presented? Does the act meet the barest minimum standard of a good deed, or does it announce to its recipient that you were willing to exert yourself and take it to the limit?
When giving is tainted by indifference or negative feelings, it will show. Like a poorly-wrapped gift, it will provide what it’s supposed to without that extra “something” to warm the recipient’s heart. If, for example, you’re feeling resentful about the need to give, if you feel wrung out or overwhelmed or taken advantage of, there’s a good chance that your giving will reflect that sentiment. It may reveal itself through a less-than-appetizing presentation or in the unenthusiastic expression on your face as you carry out your kind deed. The act itself is unchanged; it’s the accompanying attitude that diminishes its value.
We all know, or have heard of, people who have taken acts of kindness to the limit. The recently-released biography of Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, describes one hectic erev Pesach when he insisted that his bais din render, in writing, a positive halachic ruling for a certain family before the onset of Yom Tov. He couldn’t bear to think of that family having the unresolved question hanging over their heads for the next eight days. Similarly, a story in this magazine related how a woman who had performed an act of chesed for a stranger came to the stranger’s house on a Friday night to personally let her know that she’d helped solve her problem. She didn’t want the recipient of her kindness to have to experience even one extra day of uncertainly or distress.
Stories like these are the bow on top of the gift-wrapped package. Each tells the tale of an act of chesed that went the extra mile. Often at the cost of much inconvenience to the giver, the recipient is handed a kind deed that’s fully finished and lovingly presented.
A deed that says, “I didn’t do this because I had to. I did it because I really care about you.”
We all perform acts of kindness for our loved ones every day. But how often do we wrap those kind deeds in beautiful paper? And how often do we take the trouble to put a big bow on top?
People frequently give the best of themselves to their jobs, their social circles and their image in the world, while their families have to make do with the leavings. Picture the executive at the top of his game, exerting himself all day to win friends and influence people. He works hard to bring home a fat paycheck… and then he goes home to offer nothing but monosyllables to his wife and the barest minimum of attention to his kids.
He loves his family. His intentions are good. He may be supporting them in style. But the kindness he does for them is severely diminished by the poor presentation. In effect, he’s handing his loved ones an expensive gift inside an old shopping bag.
He’d be far better off leaving the bow off the gifts he gives to his colleagues and business associates and saving it to present to his family instead. Too often, our smiles and good cheer are reserved for the merest acquaintances, while our loved ones are treated to growls and sighs. We only have a certain amount of emotional energy. Let’s spend it on those we really care about.
In the same vein, we may be tempted to throw all of our creativity into various projects at work or in the community while dealing unimaginatively with problems at home. It’s not uncommon to find someone who is very successful at what she does in the outside world, but who flounders on the home front. It doesn’t have to be that way. The same mind that is capable of devising ingenious solutions in the workplace can flow with creative juices for her family’s benefit. It’s all a question of directing it properly.
This point was driven home to me once, long ago, when I was telling my son about a domestic issue I was trying to resolve. His response was immediate. “What would you do,” he asked, “if this was one of your stories?” Somewhat to my surprise, I realized that creativity does not have to be confined to a blank page or a blank canvas or a blank musical score. All of us have the ability to imbue everything we do with the energy, creativity and imagination that we bring to other aspects of our lives.
It’s a question of where we put our emphasis. Where we choose to put the bow at the top of the package.