Everyone has heard the story about the old, lonely, stingy man who hated Christmas. Despite his extreme wealth, he was unwilling to give anything to anyone unless it was likely to somehow benefit him – a trait which contributed significantly to his dislike of the holiday season. He refused to give donations to worthy charities. He was a terrible boss, known to overwork and underpay his staff. Only reluctantly did he allow Christmas day as a paid holiday, and even then it was just to avoid social ridicule that might have hurt his business. He had no meaningful connections with family and no living person who would voluntarily call him a friend.
As the story goes, this man’s life was turned around by the one person he might call a friend – though this person was no longer living. One fateful Christmas Eve night, the man who hated Christmas was visited by his former business partner, which was unexpected since he had been dead for seven years. Apparently the former business partner of the man who hated Christmas cared enough to return from the grave to warn him of what was to come if he didn’t change his life and remedy his selfish ways.
This visit alone was not enough to change the life of the man who hated Christmas, but it was followed that night by three other ghostly encounters that had a lasting impact. In the first encounter, the man was reminded of a time in the past when he had friends, family, and an employer who loved him. He was also reminded of some bad decisions that set his lonely course in life. In the second encounter, the man saw what he was missing in the present – a pleasant family Christmas party he declined to attend. He was also exposed to people currently in desperate need of help that he previously chose to ignore. In the third encounter, the man received a terrifying warning as to what he would soon become if he didn’t dramatically change his life immediately – a dead man who was missed by no one.
When the man who (formerly) hated Christmas woke the next day, he was a new man! He reconnected with family. He became a better employer, granting his staff a significant raise in pay. He became a generous friend to those in need. The result – he was happy! There is no doubt that from a strictly financial standpoint, the man was a little less rich after the change than he had been before. But the man now viewed the world through a different lens, and through that lens he was far richer than he had ever been.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you or I will receive such an impactful wakeup call this holiday season. But fortunately, we have an opportunity learn from another man’s mistakes before we make them ourselves – or at least before we make them as bad as he did.
As an estate planning attorney, all too often I meet families that have been torn apart by difficult circumstances. My hope for those families this season is that they might find a way to reconnect before it is too late.
In my line of work, I’ve also seen the joy created by generosity – both in the recipient and in the giver. You don’t have to be rich to be generous. As Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” Whether you’re most able to help others by giving of your time, your talents, your energy, or your money, do so generously and do so often. Of course I would encourage you to consider charitable giving as you prepare your estate plan, but why wait? Many times the giver winds up getting the most out of the exchange. The foundation of a successful life and a lasting legacy is what we give back.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” -Winston S. Churchill