In the Spirit of the Magi: Generosity


BY EMILY RAUER DAVIS | January 1, 2016

A new year is upon us, a time to reflect on the joys and challenges of the past twelve months and dream of what’s to come in the year ahead. For many of us, the start of a new year is an opportunity to set goals for self-improvement: this year I’ll drink more water / eat less sugar / volunteer more frequently / be more patient with my kids. The list can be endless, and for me the ability to stay true to these promises often wanes within the first weeks of January. By February 1, I’ve usually called it quits and – ironically – have resolved to do better next year.

magiWe Share Who We Are

When early January rolls around I also find myself thinking about a beautiful tradition started by friends in Seattle. Each year, on the weekend closest to January 6, they host an Epiphany party. It’s a welcome opportunity at the end of the Christmas season to gather friends and family for one final holiday celebration. There’s plentiful food and drink, lively conversation, and kids of all ages running every which way. In the spirit of the Magi, each guest is invited to come prepared to share a gift or talent with the group. Some choose to sing or play an instrument while others recite poetry, dance, read a favorite passage or prayer, or simply share their hopes for the year ahead. There are some guests who choose not to offer a specific talent. Their contribution is the gift of presence, taking it all in with an open mind and heart. It’s the perfect way to close the Christmas season just as it began: in the spirit of generosity. We share who we are and what we have with those around us.

Reflecting on this Epiphany tradition has me re-imagining the New Year’s resolution. Resolutions are generally personal decisions, often (though not always) self-focused, and dependent on the willpower of the individual. In my experience, they also tend to be formulaic in design and execution. Committing to a more rigorous exercise routine, for instance, is always near the top of my list at the beginning of each new year (i.e., I will work out 3 days a week for an hour each time). My motivation to maintain this strict regimen is high at the beginning, but life happens. Kids get sick, work gets busy, I get tired and cranky. Well-intentioned resolutions give way to the need to put little fires out here and there, and suddenly I end up in survival mode, falling back on patterns of coping that aren’t necessarily healthy or desirable.

In the Spirit of the Magi

I wonder what it would look like if, in the spirit of the Magi, I was able to see resolutions through the lens of generosity rather than obligation? Instead of setting out to achieve a specific goal, what if I asked myself the following questions: What gift of self can I give my partner this year? My children? How can I act with greater generosity toward my friends and family? My students? My community? Myself?

If I were to answer these questions right now, my response to all of them would be the same: I’d offer the gift of time. Set monthly date nights with my spouse. Allow my children to move at their own pace occasionally, rather than mine, and designate one-on-one time with each of them every day. Carve out 15 minutes for prayer each morning, and a few hours per week for exercise. Every few weeks, call a friend I haven’t spoken with in a while to catch up.

From Obligation to Generosity

By shifting the focus from obligation to generosity, resolutions become less solitary and more communal; the focus is outward rather than inward. Generosity seems to better fit the rhythm of our daily lives, too: there are times when we have more of ourselves to give, and times when we need to pull back and focus on self-care. If we think of resolutions as gifts we give to ourselves and to others, they become expressions of love rather than duty. It still might not be easy to wake up an hour early to get a run in, but perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such drudgery if we think of it as a gift of time and health to ourselves. In Ignatian terms, maybe we’d be better able to act out of freedom, rather than the unfreedom of feeling bound by arbitrary, self-imposed parameters.

I’m going to give this approach a try this year. I won’t do it perfectly, but then that’s not the point, is it? True gifts are always freely given. There are times when we’re able to give more, and times when we can’t give quite as much. Like the widow in Luke’s gospel, we give what we can – and sometimes, when our well is running low, we give from a place of scarcity rather than abundance.

This year, in the spirit of the Magi, I will view my resolutions through the lens of generosity. Kinder, gentler resolutions for what I hope and pray will be a kinder, gentler, more peaceful year.

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