How to Receive a Gift

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 
A lime green thank you note in cursive font as a part of a gift

Often when I read, I’m struck by a particular passage without understanding why it has caught my attention. I’ve read Story of a Soul, the spiritual memoir of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, several times, and only recently realized why I kept thinking about a particular paragraph.

Its context: One day in 1897, when she was in her early 20s and weakened by the tuberculosis that would soon kill her, Thérèse was sitting in her wheelchair in the garden of her convent. She had been ordered by her Prioress to complete an account of her childhood memories but was having little success at getting any writing done:

When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits of the doctor, everything is discussed…another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems.

[…] I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. For example, here is a hay worker who is just leaving me after having said very compassionately: “Poor little Sister, it must tire you out writing like that all day long.” “Don’t worry,” I answer, “I appear to be writing very much, but really I am writing almost nothing.” “Very good!” she says, “but just the same, I am very happy we are doing the haying since this always distracts you a little.” In fact, it is such a great distraction for me…that I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing.

Here, St. Thérèse emphasizes the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, rather than responding to the gifts themselves. She didn’t want to be distracted with chit-chat; she wanted to write. She didn’t want a bouquet of flowers in her lap; she wanted to see wildflowers growing in the fields. Still, she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

Andy Warhol observed, “You can never predict what little things will set off peculiar emotional reactions in other people.”

One memory that makes me squirm happened several years ago when my husband brought home a big gardenia plant—just because I love gardenias.

“Thanks,” I said weakly. “It’s so…big.” Inside, my thoughts were about my own limitations: Where will I put it to display it properly? Can I take care of it? I’m sure to kill it in just a few days, as I always do, and that will be so upsetting. What a waste.

Gifts often strike strange chords in us. Andy Warhol observed, “You can never predict what little things in the way somebody looks or talks or acts will set off peculiar emotional reactions in other people.” The gift set off a reaction of self-doubt, so I didn’t respond with the enthusiasm that such a thoughtful gift should have provoked. My husband knew I loved gardenias, so he bought me the biggest one he could find! I should’ve taken care to not only appear happy, but also to find a way to be so. Now I think of that gift every time I see a gardenia.

“Respond to the spirit of a gift” is a resolution that’s so obviously right that I shouldn’t have to remind myself of it—but I do.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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