Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Last month, I wrote about the Patterson family Christmas of 1956. I shared how I was able to find joy during a time when we had few, if any, presents or other “things.” Many of you wrote back that the tale reminded you of similar times where you too were able to stumble on Christmas despite your challenging financial circumstances. Thank you for your kind and heart-warming reaction.
One of you wrote that after sharing the story with a friend, she replied that she had already received four similar stories that lauded the joys associated with poverty—and if this were true, why don’t we seek poverty all of the time? I can understand the response. The last thing I wanted to suggest was that the poverty itself was something worth seeking.
I’m reminded of when I was first married and attending graduate school in Palo Alto, California. Each week my wife, three children, and I went to church with a couple dozen other young struggling student couples along with a hundred or so wealthy congregants who lived on the edge of campus. These folks of extraordinary means would leave their estates in the foothills and drive their luxury German cars to church where they would then tell those of us who were living in tiny boxes called student housing just how lucky we were. They would most sincerely explain—often with tears in their eyes—how they fondly remembered their college years and recalled them as the best time of their life.
My reaction was predictable. “Really?” I thought to myself. “These are the best years? I study endlessly. I have very little time left for recreation or hobbies. Every month I worry about making ends meet. When our old jalopy breaks down, we go without something in order to pay for the repair. These are the best years of my life? Tell me it isn’t so!”
Some thirty years later, when my church assignment had me speaking to a group of young married college students, I listened intently as other older speakers shared the predictable message of “These are the best years of your life!” When it came my turn to speak, I stood up and said, “I’ve had money and I’ve not had money, and to be frank—I prefer having money.” (This brought a chuckle.)
“And as far as college years being the best years of my life, I do remember how great it was to be young and energetic and studying full time with some of the world’s best thinkers. I recall playing with my children between classes and then catching the campus bus for a ride to the psychology building where I listened to the world-famous scholar Solomon Asch as he reviewed his earlier studies of compliance and independence. As I sat and took in the words of the world’s best, I knew how lucky I was.
“I also remember the unrelenting stress of not having enough money—of not being able to give my children as much as I would have liked—the missed lessons, the thinner coats, the oatmeal instead of eggs. In fact, when I finally finished six years of graduate school, took a job, and we bought and cooked our very first chuck roast, my kids fought over who got the drumstick. They didn’t know any better. All they had ever eaten was chicken.”
So, some of the aspects of those college years were indeed wonderful, other aspects . . . not so much. With this in mind, I want to affirm that I never intended my story as an endorsement of poverty. I only wanted to say that even when times are tough (and yes, tough times come with sacrifices and suffering), you can still find joy in the simple things.
This has certainly been true for me. Going into this season, I can already tell you what my favorite memories will be. They won’t be the gifts sitting wrapped under my tree at home. They’ll be the memories of the time I’ve spent with loved ones—playing games, telling stories, and sharing hand-made gifts.
I’m already working on this. At our recent family Christmas party, we gathered at my daughter Christine’s house and sang carols and played games while the young cousins shared simple presents. As promised, I read the story of our 1956 Christmas, and at the end, I gave each of my children and grandchildren a small package of peanut brittle my wife and I had just made. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.
We also ooh-ed and ahh-ed over a hand-crafted alphabet book one granddaughter had made for her 18-month-old cousin; and everyone applauded and cheered as another granddaughter read a poem she had carefully composed on the computer. The poem described the joys of the season as viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old. As I sat and took in her innocent words of wonder and encouragement, I couldn’t have been more proud.
So no, I don’t encourage poverty as a means of finding the true holiday spirit. But I do stand by the claim that often, the things that matter most can be shared by all. Time devoted to thoughtful conversation, stories told across generations, and acts of unconditional love are all free. They’re also as precious as gold.
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43 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Still Stumbling”
I am reminded how a wealthy merchant approached Jesus and asked what he had to do to reach paradise. Jesus instructed the man to sell all that he had, give it to the poor and follow Him. The man couldn’t bring himself to sell all that he had and missed the opportunity of a lifetime ! Happiness and good times are not found in material possessions; rather, peace and contentment are found within. This is what Jesus was really telling the wealthy merchant, who obviously never knew real happiness as he could not part with his material possessions.
What you have described in your article is the same philosophy – happiness … real happiness comes from within, it is not something you can purchase.
I find all of your postings so wonderful because you are a master story teller. This time, you touched me enough to jot a note. My father is starting to demonstrate signs of dementia, and your story today reminds me to relish the time we have with him and all our family members. Thank you!
Kerry, Thanks for another great column. You have a great gift for telling stories(are they really true!?).
Anyway, regarding the Christmas and poverty I am reminded of Tevye’s comment to God in Fiddler on the roof, “..it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honour either.”
Poverty, like plenty, is a circumstance. All all circumstances require, from us, a response, which both reveals and shapes our character.
Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and blessed new year…Dave
Thank you for this article and your last article of the Patterson Christmas. I love the way you write, and as someone who struggles with being eloquent, I love to read articles from people who are. You are!
Your message in both articles were very clear. Sometimes I wonder if people just look for a chance to complain, or perhaps they are struggling with something in their life that is difficult to deal with. I am the executive director of a non profit in Utah (the oldest non-denominational in Utah) we serve children and families with four programs with the long term goal of Safe Children. Caring Families. Strong Communities. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. There are so many who are stuggling.Please keep Kerrying On! Your articles always uplift and motivate me. Thank You!
Thanks for another wonderful, heartwarming story Kerry! I have a quote I want to share with you
“Remember, life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away.”
Wishing you and your family many breathless moments!!!!!!!
Good article–thank you. People don’t often separate out the strands of meaning in concepts like this.
I’ve really enjoyed the entire dialogue on Christmas and poverty. I agree with your thoughts on poverty and would offer a further thought on why poverty offers anything of value. I believe that we look back on poorer times with fondness out of nostalgia because we miss the clarity which difficult times force upon us. We miss who we are when we are responding wholeheartedly to life. I grew up in modest rural surroundings. When you don’t have everything you want, you gain clarity. This seems to ground a person and give strength, though you don’t realize it until later when that strenght is gone. I’m not sure what the strenght really is, but it seems to also be present any time we find a way to be grounded in reality, basically in Life as an ongoing process. Wealth seems to insulate us from that feeling of being grounded- i.e. being connected to the wild, unpredictable place we call The World. The false reality of wealth seems more like insulation against that world, like a huge winter coat covering you like a tomb.
It may be too trite to say it, but it seems like at our deepest level we want to live in the raw world, but at our ego level we want to be wrapped up and safely protected from the world. Those two don’t go together very well and lead to endless contradiction. So really, you have to make a choice.
I look forward to your next story.
Wonderful story! Thank you!! You are right, often the best moment’s in life are not moment’s or things that money can bring. For me, this Holiday Season, it is the memory of my recently departed father who fought a 10 year battle with Cancer. So for me this year, it truly is just being with family, and celebrating all the past 34 Christmas’ that I was so truly blessed to have with him. Thank you, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
When I was a teenager, my mother told me that God had blessed us by making us poor. She said that because we couldn’t afford it, they were not able to give us things (like a car at 16) that wouldn’t be good for us anyway, and wouldn’t teach us the value of working and saving for what we deem worhty. That we would lose life lessons if they had the money to give us more things. I thought she was crazy!
Now, as a mother of teenagers, I understand the crazy desire to give and give to our kids. But when you really can’t give big dollar things, you give yourself and you come up with more creative ways to give. I have been a stay at home mom. All of my girls’ friends enjoy coming to our (small) house because I bake. They are always impressed that we have homemade goodies, and they enjoy visiting with our family and sitting down to family dinners (mostly chicken!) If we had more money, we may buy desserts and go out to eat instead of sitting down together at home. We are not able to invite friends out to eat with us, but they really would rather be in our home.
So we are able to give something unique to our daughters and their friends. All because we don’t have extra money.
I wouldn’t pick poverty, to be certain! But there are creative and fun ways to work around a small paycheck.
My eldest lost his job, his wife cannot find a job, and my other son continually struggles with money. My daughter is weighed down with paying off her student loan. As a result of reading your last article, and after reading this one, I felt that I needed to share the impact you have had on my family. I shared the article with my children and as a result, we are all making our gifts this year. What an awesome undertaking. Each one of my children and their significant others is unique and I wanted to give them something truly unique. In the making of the gifts, I realized how little we think of each other on a daily basis. Making these gifts has brought me closer to my children and I haven’t even given them their gifts. I can hardly wait to see their eyes on Christmas day as they see how special they are to me and what beauty I see through what I made them.
thanks for reminding me how special it is to treasure family.
Thank you so much for your heartfelt and heartwarming insight into the real wonder of Christmas. You’ve reminded me that it’s not about the lack or the extravagance, it’s about each other – whoever that may be. If we lack, we lack together. If we get a little (or a lot) carried away, we again go together. It’s the “together” that counts.
May your family have a beautiful, blessed and memorable Christmas.
Your story reminded me of a Christmas a few years ago when my father was very ill and receiving care in a hospital several hours from home. As Christmas drew near, I and my siblings and their families all gathered at the nearby hotel where my mother was staying, so we could be near her and dad. On the day before Christmas, we learned that there would be virtually no restaurants open on Christmas Day, so we scavenged a holiday dinner from the local grocery store aisles and deli section and the hotel let us use their kitchen and a conference room to prepare and share our holiday meal. Despite the sadness of our gathering – my father died a few weeks later – I will always remember how we drew together and found a way to celebrate the holiday as best we could, by being together.
I converted to Judaism as an adult, and find it tremendously relieving not to be obligated to buy into the consumerism of Christmas with my children. We do one night of modest Hanukkah gift exchange, and otherwise focus on the beautiful, traditional elements of the celebration, including lighting candles, singing blessings, and playing dreidel. I feel some nostalgia for the scent of pine tree and decorations, and the excess of gift-giving from my own childhood, but I love more the fact that our habit of keeping our holiday simple isn’t tied to our economic status; it’s a choice, and one that I think lets us have precisely what you’ve described. Thanks for reminding me of an unexpected aspect of my choice that I hadn’t realized was so positive for my family!
Kerry – thanks for this follow-up article. I did not read your original article and think about poverty, I thought about how, when you did not have anything else to give, when you did not have “things” you gave of yourself. I read your story to my staff at our holiday lunch. My message to them was that in the end, beyond what we do, it’s all about our relationships. I am proud and humbled to work along side such a skilled and caring staff. Everything we do gets done in relationship and they understand and embrace this. (we work in healthcare) We did not talk about your poverty, we talked about how the nature of your relationships lead you past your lack of things to find the joy that is always present, waiting for us to find it. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s becoming ours too.
Thank you for sharing your stories. As I sit here reading, I am reminded yet again, how grateful I should be. My mom passed away this past Sunday, 12/13/09, and my family and I are struggling through so many emotions!…but reading your story reminded me that I need to celebrate our mom’s life; not mourn her. Mom was the ‘corner stone’ of our family and she is missed terribly, but I will remind my family of what this Christmas should be and that is, be thankful and grateful for all the years we all shared with Mom! As we go through our ‘poverty’ period, I will try not to focus so much on the ‘not enough money’ but on just having each other and loving each other…
Well said and may God bless you during this holiday season.
Thanks Kerry. So happy to hear that your initial Christmas celebration was one of beauty and joy from the hearts of those you love. I have a comment regarding the person who asked if we should not all seek poverty. Perhaps the answer is in the “stuff” that we come to worship in lieu of the opportunity to connect at the most basic level of humanity and to reach out and give to others with a spirit of kindness and generosity. That takes a big heart. Perhaps the message is that the poor in spirit will be poor no matter how much money they have. And the rich in spirit will be rich no matter how broke they are. Our Crucial Conversations training teaches us to “Start with Heart.” This may be a leap, but I find that when dealing with workplace conflict, communication breakdowns, hard feelings etc., it is the rich in spirit who are able to be humble i.e.,”broke” and willing to look beyond the emotions of the moment to find possibility and resourcefulness in achieving a desirable outcome. To a person who is without – perhaps without validation, confidence, recognition, time, support or a myriad of other reasons why people get cranky, uncooperative, political (dare I say unloveable), that is a profound and lasting gift. What a great time of year to to challenge ourselves to give often and liberally of our “wealth.”
Kerry, thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my friend’s comments. I forwarded this column to her and she wrote back immediately. “I LOVE IT! I couldn’t have asked for a better response!” was her reply.
Your column is a special delight. It give me the gift of reflection. Thank you, Ellen.
I enjoyed the article and have similar memories. Early on when my children asked me what do I want for Christmas, instead of giving them money to buy me a gift (that I told them what to buy), I always tell them I would like a “gift from the heart”. At first, they did not understand but I carefully explained these are gifts that don’t cost money. I asked them to describe what things I might like that they can give that don’t cost money and the first year I received 12, five minute neck massages, (once a month) from my son and my daughter gave me the gift of organizing the family pictures into albums (that was huge and I ended up pitching in but we made it fun and memorable).
Now that they are teenagers, it is automatic with our children and they never have a hard time coming up with gifts that mean something to us and I never forget what they “bought” us year after year.
You’re so right! I remember Christmases in the late’60’s with my parents just after we immigrated to the United States from Canada. The gifts were simple and often handmade. My grandmother Parrott would always send a hand knit sweater for each of us. My grandmother Cumby would send a stocking filled with an orange and little bits of candy, pencils, small toys she’d saved up for the year. Mom made our dresses out of remnants from a local fabric store. The gifts weren’t fancy and there was usually only one, but we had a holiday dinner filled with friends and family who had immigrated with us and new friends or people who didn’t have family. Sometimes there were as many as 30 people around the table which had been enlarged by putting a piece of plywood on it. We felt loved.
The Christmases my brothers experienced in the ’80s were full of lavish expensive gifts. My parents were both working by then, so the holiday was a hurried affair, but there was lots of money. Many of the families we grew up with had moved to different cities — as we had — so it was just us. Both of us girls had moved away. There was hardly any time for the holidays. My parents were unhappy with each other by then and ultimately divorced. My brothers had everything money could buy, but they did not have the richness of the experience that my sister and I had all those years ago.
As a result, I very much appreciate the comeraderied and creativity of scarcer times. We have to work so much harder and work together to create joy. And when we do, we are so much better at making memories that last.
My family is everywhere now — the old families are scattered — We have relatives all over Canada & the US. When we can get together, my sister and I try to make it as special as we can with handmade things, special cookies, and lots of storytelling — and of course, a camera. It’s become our legacy to help create this for the next generation who have lived in a time of abundance and have forgotten how we can create joy with our hearts and not our pocketbooks.
Thanks for being such a lovely storyteller and reminding us all what is important.
I loved your first article, and in no way did I think you were holding up poverty as a noble state or one to be attained. I do think it pointed out that ATTITUDE is so important to how we handle any life situation. And CREATIVITY when life is hard is also a key to making any life situation better and bearable. Thanks so much. I’ve shared your article with a lot of people who found it uplifting and encouraging.
I think that the joyful times in the midst of poverty touch us and stand out in our memories so well because we don’t expect to be joyful when we’re poor. Our culture is so oriented to material wealth that being poor is really stressful and not fun (as you pointed out). In times like that, the joy surprises us, offering hope that all is not as bleak as it seems — and THAT’s memorable.
Kerry – Thanks for your warm and wonderful family story.Five years ago, on December 23rd, my dad died very suddenly.Your story has given me a new focus.My daddy loved peanut brittle – his most favorite candy in the whole wide world.And this year (thank you again, Kerry)I am starting a new tradition-I’m gathering my sons and grandchildren together to make peanut brittle!My sons know of their grandaddy’s weakness for peanut brittle-what fun it will be to share this time and the memories that are so precious.
I spontaneously invited a few friends to meet at my place to go Christmas Caroling just last night in my downtown Denver neighborhood. After soup, we set out to sing. We had the words down from our childhood memories, but we also had bells, harmony, humor, laughter, love & applause from many people who came out on their balconies to listen & even join in singling the carols. It was pure, simple joy to gift the neighborhood with music. We now plan on making it an annual event. Merry Christmas!
good reminder – rich, poor in between. I’ve counseled them all over the last 40 years. And i agree that when push comes to shove peace of mind, happiness, contentment and all similar do-it-yourself-opening-heart-surgery emotional experiences come from heart connections.
i always remind people that heartbeats are our ultimate, personal, non-renewable resource — use them lovingly and wisely.
dr. jim sellner PhD.,DipC.
I agree with you that it is the memories of people that you share Christmas with that are important. Many people cannot remember what gifts they received year to year, but can describe in great detail a warm memory of times shared with family and friends. I saw a sign in front of a local church that read “You can be rich by getting more or wanting less” and I was so struck by that. No one wants to live in poverty but we do need to be aware of what is enough when it comes to material things. As in most things, balance is the key.
Your article on the tough times being the best was absolutely on target. Thank you for sharing a healthy and joyous perspective on the extremes of life. Merry Christmas to you and your most fortunate family.
I would like to relate this article to the current events in Copenhagen. Indeed as citizens of the world, we cannot consider thinner coats and oatmeal for breakfast to be poverty. The fact is that US citizens on average ( of course this does not apply to those hardest hit by the recession ) consume much more than our share of the world’s resources. We are killing our own future generations and current citizens of other parts of the world with our excessive consumption.
The truth described in this article, that warmth of the heart is not dependent on high levels of material consumption, is central to the perception reset we all are faced with. Let us not assign labels of poverty or deprivation to a decreased emphasis on owning and consuming. Rather we can consider a conscious transition to walking more softly on the earth, with hope and love for the future as our motivation.
The first part of responding to the massive change that is in front of us is to understand the effort toward change of heart that is incumbent upon us. The Christmas story in this article models that change of heart.
I have been crocheting/knitting/looming Christmas gifts for several years now, and I find that they are more memorable and strengthen relationships more than all the money in the world. This year, I finished all my Christmas gifts early and gave them all out. I’m glad I did. My mother’s partner of over 20 years died two days ago, and I would never have been able to reaffirm my gratitude to him for the happiness and strength he’s given my mother had I waited until Christmas.
It’s not about whether we have money or not – it’s about whether we have options or not. We can choose simplicity with money in the bank. Instead, we often forget that money is to serve us, and we end up serving money instead.
Povery complells us to meet others and share things. Povery makes us humble. Humility is a virtue of the soul. When we are less independent materially, ironically it provides oppertunity to develop the skills of the soul. Skills of the souls are more enjoyable than the fruits of the material. This is how poverty makes poeple to grown spiritually. Even if you are materially rich, you can still be detached to the material and assume poverty. in that way fruits of soul can be sustained or developed even,
Your article stirs me. Probably not in the way you intended though. In the first article, I knew you weren’t advocating poverty to find happiness. What’s interesting for me is that as a young adult (I’m > 50 now), I didn’t understand that. I did seek poverty for happiness and I found happiness in life just like anyone might. I also found it was very difficult and stressful to handle the lack of money to pay for necessities.
I figured it out and we now have enough to get by with a little left over… and we know where to find happiness. I wish that instead of assuming, I had done what your reader did and asked those who were telling me “poverty stories” in my youth if they were suggesting poverty as a road to happiness.
As usual, well written, well said and we all wish you well with your holidays this year. Like others, your article stired some great memories. Thanks for sharing your gift of what I like to call “joy infection” with all of us.
My dad loved peanut brittle, too. I am going to be giving it away along with the Christmas presents. Thanks for the help.
I rememeber being poor, and how people blew off my requests for help. So when I became successful I stopped celebrating a commercialized CRASH-MESS, and give 90% of my gifts to those who Christ would have me care for on his birthday: the hungry, homeless, poor, orphaned, and the imprisoned. Rather than stressing out of the holidays, I feel JOY!
Loved your story and response to others. For Christmas last year instead of gifts in December we took a trip to Florida in April. The trip was very pricy for the 6 of us and I realized my favorite part was watching my son and my son-in-law have a contest in the pool to see who could swim the farthest with one kick and one breathe which could have been done in our local pool for $3.00 if we would slow down and take time with each other. Thank you I really enjoy reading these comments and the thinking and reflecting and learning that I do.
I was moved by the first story and encouraged by the second. In my early years (and I’m only 37), things like wooden pallettes, bailing wire or rope, and a good imagination is all you needed to survive. Palletes served as make-shift steps down the hill to the house, as the perfect firewood holder (they’d keep the wood from soaking up ground moisture), or as a great pretend Huck Finn raft when connected to 4 large inner tubes. Bailing wire was the “Fasten-All” of my childhood. I swear my dad could fix any tractor, car, or structure with it. I hated the knock-off shoes when others had Nikes, I hated going to yard sales for clothes all the while hoping the seller wasn’t a classmate, and I hated looking at Owens Corning insulation as I laid in bed staring at the ceiling because we couldn’t afford ceiling coverings….BUT I love the memories that could only be afforded by our situation. If hard work and dedication alone created wealth, my dad would be a millionaire. Sometimes its simply the circumstances your dealt, the opportunities you create, and good timing. Sometimes it’s hard to get all three, and sometimes your simply playing your part in the chess game of changing history, even if it means that it may take your entire lifetime without ever seeing the generations after you finally breaking the mold. It’s funny how I now have the money to share Christmas gifts with my children that as a child I only would have owned in a deep sleep, but that I’d still expect bailing wire to be hanging around the garage somewhere. I can still remember the cattail wars at the pond in the woods. When cut off above the water level, and slung like a yard dart, you could literally bomb the enemy from 100 miles away. Who needed expensive cap guns. All we needed was a pocket knife, acreage purchased with every last dime, and a little bit of time. This blog response has been theraputic with every touch of the keyboard. Thanks, Dad!
I loved reading this article for two reasons. First, it reminds me that material wealth, although important, is temporary and fleeting. Second, I was reminded that it’s never too late to make the kind of memories Kerry talks about. Regardless of family situation, there are always opportunities to seek out and help another human being, befriend someone who may need befriending, share a meal with another, or just sing (out of tune, froggy voice and all) songs of gratitude. The ability to act on our gratitude is one of God’s greatest gifts.
Your stories are absolutely wonderful! Just reading this last one, reminded me of Jackie Kennedy. If it’s my correct understanding,
Caroline and John were to write poems to give as a present. This truly showcased their mother as a class act and the importance of having a very personal piece of their child by the writing of their poems.
When I read this commentary, I couldn’t help but think about the unexpected joy I found in the people, particularly the children, in the tiny impoverished country of Uganda when I visited there about a year or so ago. Walking through the slums, I was overwhelmed by the smiles and laughter of the chilren, running and playing in what we in America would call deplorable conditions. Over and over I noticed how these children sat around telling stories, laughing, playing with whatever they could find in a garbage dump, walking down the roads with their arms around each other, big smiles on their faces. Joy in a place like this? Was it possible? I went to minister to them–but I received much more from them than what I gave. I came home changed, appreciating everything I have, and remembering the lesson that the best things in life cannot be bought with money.
Thank you for your ever-thoughtful appreciation for each moment! Staying present in the moment, sharing love, and expressing gratitude are the most precious gifts in life.
I am disappointed anyone would have such a response to your article and to make you feel like you had to defend it. I heard your message loud and clear and shared it with others. I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.
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