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Archive for Friday, December 21, 2007

It’s all about the right gift

December 21, 2007

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Thanksgiving is supposed to be about gratitude and Christmas about : what? Getting more stuff we don't really need, but sometimes selfishly want?

It's also the political season, which will outlast Christmas - along with every other holiday between now and Halloween next - and that means listening to claims by Democratic presidential candidates that the economy is bad and getting worse.

Here's a suggestion for a Christmas present you can give yourself that will be remembered long after whatever you get and give this Christmas is forgotten. Depending on your age, go to your grandparents and ask how they lived when they were young, or even middle-aged. Try visiting the house in which they grew up. Ask them what kind of things they received at Christmas. Have them tell you the amount of their average paycheck. Then ask if they were content.

I am privileged to live on the same street where I spent the first seven years of my life. My elementary school was a half block away from our two-bedroom apartment, which also remains. The neighborhood was all white then, now it houses mostly immigrants. I don't know what my parents paid in rent during World War II, but I do know my mother had ration stamps, some of which she pasted in a scrapbook she gave to me. I never heard her complain about "doing without," though she frequently did.

When my Dad returned from the war, we moved to another Washington suburb. His first house cost $20,000. He bought it on the GI Bill and thought he had arrived on easy street. The house is still there. It would fit inside my current home and yet people my age are crying about the stagnating economy. They've got to be kidding.

When my father died, I went through his papers and discovered some old income tax returns. The amount of money he made in his later years (and even his middle years) would be considered poverty wages by today's standards. I never heard him complain. He always provided for us and taught us to be grateful for what we had and to live within our means.

I keep some of my early paychecks from NBC where I started in journalism as a copy boy. The weekly salary is less than my withholding today. I'm not bragging, just saying that we ought to remind ourselves of the gift we have that is America, which offers opportunities to succeed more than any nation on Earth.

Beginning with the Baby Boomers, we began to transition from being content with what we have to a sense of being entitled to ever-expanding pieces of the economic pie. We demanded more money, more things, more pleasure. Why has the acquisition of "more" produced so much less - less contentment, less happiness? When the income increases don't come fast enough to keep pace with the want increases and pleasure is not constant, many complain and moan about "hard times." Anyone who has not been through a Great Depression and a world war has no reason to whine.

Most of our demands are a response to marketing. We are assaulted with commercials and ads that assert our "need" for whatever it is they are trying to sell us. When our income is insufficient to meet those newly discovered wants, the spouse goes to work to help pay for them. The kids go into day care, or its equivalent - ever earlier pre-kindergarten. When these children display social malfunction, we find doctors to prescribe drugs to soothe their legitimate anxiety.

With all of the gifts you've bought by now, maybe it's too late to accept the state you're in and be content with it. But it isn't too soon to make a New Year's resolution that next Christmas will be different. As the sales figures pour in and the stock market reacts to whether this was a good or bad economic year, ask yourself what your year has been like. Has more stuff - or its pursuit - assuaged you? If not, maybe you were given the wrong gift.

That's what Christmas is really about: the right gift. Receive THAT gift and contentment will quickly follow.

Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.

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