THE BLOG
12/24/2010 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Best Christmas Present? Try Gratitude

It's the holidays and you are wondering what to give those people in your life who are special. What's the latest gadget, the latest trend, the one thing you just can't live without? Or, you wonder what you might get. Is it the jewelry that you wanted? The iPad that seems a bit too expensive? Is it a gift certificate? Giving and getting. What wonderful Christmas joy this seems to be. "So, what did you get?"

I have a suggestion for a gift -- a gift that you can receive and give at the same time. It's called "gratitude." What you can do is think about the people that you love, the special people, and contemplate why they matter to you. What would life be like without your best friend, your partner, your mother or father, your kids? Imagine that they no longer existed and now you had a chance to get them back -- but only if you could prove that you really were grateful. What would you miss about your best friend? Think about the conversations, the memories, the laughter, and the tears -- you both shared. Now think about how grateful you are for having him or her in your life. Now, tell them.

I think back about my mother who died 24 years ago. I am forever grateful to her. She cared for me when I was a child, made me laugh, gave me confidence, kissed me and gave me the ability to love. I am grateful today. And always will be. I am grateful for people and things that are gone -- but stay with me forever because I keep them in my gratitude. No one can ever take away my appreciation.

I am grateful to friends, family members, to my colleagues, my patients who continue to teach me. I am grateful that I can open my eyes and see the snow from a window where I am sitting. I am grateful to all the authors whose work has inspired me, made me think and feel in new and deeper ways, authors like Shakespeare and John Donne and James Joyce and all the others -- all gone, perhaps, but all here forever in my heart.

A patient of mine told me about how he had been cheated out of money. He was bitter, dwelling on it and complaining. He had every right to feel this way. But I suggested that he set this aside for a few minutes and to imagine the following: "Everything has been taken away. All your senses, your family, money, job, memories -- you are nothing. And now you can get one thing back at a time -- but only if you can convince me that you truly appreciate it, truly have gratitude. What do you want back first -- and why do you appreciate it?" He was suddenly quiet, tears began forming in his eyes. He said, "I want my daughter back". And I asked him what he appreciated about her and he began describing the good and the bad -- the love, affection, fun and the obstacles they shared together. And he continued with wanting his wife and what she meant and why life would seem to be empty -- impossible -- without her.

And then I said, "Imagine you are blind. But you can open your eyes for ten minutes and see what is really important. What would that be?" And, of course, it was his family. "I noticed that in your list of things you didn't put the money or your job or your possessions. And it seems to me that you already have everything that is the most important. Except you haven't been noticing it, haven't paid attention. So over the next two weeks you can either focus on the money that you lost or you can make your family feel loved and appreciated. You choose."

He chose gratitude.

When I was a kid I read the short story by O'Henry -- "The Gift of the Magi." It's about a young couple, Della and Jim, who are poor but who love each other. Tomorrow is Christmas and neither one has enough money to buy the other the present they really want to buy. Jim wants to get her a beautiful comb for her flowing hair, she wants to get him a chain for his heirloom watch. She sells her hair to buy the chain, he sells the watch to buy the comb. A comb -- but there will be no hair -- a watch-chain, but there is no longer a watch.

O'Henry ends the story with the following:

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.