The holidays are here, and for some of us the brightly colored lights, neatly wrapped presents, and shimmering ice cycles surround and comfort us like our favorite warm sweater or blanket. But for others, this time of year is one of sadness, stress and loneliness. I have experienced the latter of the two feelings several times, but a few years ago I realized why.
At the time, I was living in New York and working as a tie salesman at Ralph Lauren. It was my first Holiday season at that store, but I knew from previous retail experience that since I was paid on commission, it could be very profitable. This was important to me because I was in a difficult financial situation. I could barely afford rent and other bills, and would not be able to exchange gifts with friends, or fly home to see my family.
On Christmas Eve, a customer came into the store looking for a last minute gift for her daughter’s new husband. I showed her our most popular items like golf shirts, cuff links and ties, but the customer vetoed all of them because she said she didn’t know her son-in-law’s taste. She finally decided on a pair of $150 red cashmere socks.
“I don’t know if he’ll like them,” she said. “But he better appreciate them because of how much they cost.”
I should have been happy because of the commission, but I was suddenly filled with sadness and a little anger. When the woman left, I excused myself from the sales floor and went to the employee kitchen to think about what I was feeling.
At first I felt hate towards the customer because she had the money to spend $150 on socks, and I had been surviving on cans of soup so I could pay rent. I became more angry as I thought about how I would be spending Christmas day alone, and her son-in-law would have his feet wrapped in cashmere.
But then I realized that what I was truly feeling was jealously, and that the emotion would neither solve or change anything. It would only fill me with more hate and anger and grow like a cancerous tumor.
It was at this moment that I decided to re-evaluate the meaning of the holidays. I knew that to some the time of year was about profit, but to others it was about the celebration of life, and the overcoming of obstacles.
To me, it was a time to get together with family and friends and be thankful for all that I had going for me. I had my health, and people who loved and supported me.
I realized that in a strange way, my interaction with the customer had been a blessing. She hadn’t change what the holidays meant to me, but she had made me think about how I would celebrate them.
I decided that I would no longer let the fact that I couldn’t afford expensive gifts, keep me from enjoying the holidays. I would instead give my loved ones something that I felt was more valuable; time. Socks wear out, but memories of a nice dinner or a walk in the park will stay with people forever.
Later that evening, I called a friend who I knew would also be alone in New York for Christmas. I asked him if he wanted to come to my apartment for lunch.
“I don’t have a Christmas tree, or a gift for you,” I said. “But I can open up the best can of soup I have and maybe even spring for some eggnog.”
There was no cashmere, or mounds of wrapping paper and presents to celebrate the holidays. But I consider the lesson I learned, one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received.