Not everyone is as predisposed to looking at things the way I am, but I am a glass half-full kind of person, rather than a glass half-empty sort. It was my father William Peter Stephenson, who encouraged this attitude in me and in all of my siblings. I remember every year at Christmas time my father would say to us at some point or another “You know, I remember how Christmas was always so simple when I was a kid. I remember how, even though we didn’t have very much, how happy we all were.” And then he would continue “I might have gotten something like a little blackboard that my Dad had made for me, with a box of chalk to go with it, and then in my stocking there would be some candy and an orange… and an orange was really special then, because we hardly ever got an orange at any other time of the year.”
It always was so touching to think of my father as that little boy enjoying his orange right down to the last sweet juicy morsel. That the receiving of something so simple as an orange would have had such a lasting effect on him that he repeated the memory to us every year had an effect on me too. From that, and the many other stories Dad told us about growing up in the Depression years, he had, by example, taught us to look for our joys in the small things in life. I think his life motto would have been “Be content and happy first of all with the things that you are given, because if you are not happy at the start with what you are given, then you will never find any satisfaction in the things that you go out and search for after that.”
North Americans of my generation and those that followed after it have never suffered through the extreme deprivation of the Depression, or the rationing of the Second World War. As a result most folks are so far removed from the state of not having enough that they don’t even begin to realize how much they really do have. Just read a few pages of Pierre Burton’s The Great Depression and you will realize why it is that Grandpa always vigilantly scraped out the very last smidgen of jam from the jar before discarding it, or why Grandma saves her unused paper napkins in the drawer by her bed at the Nursing home.
When it comes to material possessions, many North Americans have come to believe that the more things they have the happier they will be. This is truly tragic because, in reality, the exact opposite is true. All that excess materialism just seems to become a distraction that detours people away from personal fulfillment.
You can readily see this in young children. For several years our kids were my parents’ only grandchildren and my seven siblings’ only niece and nephew. You can hardly imagine the surplus of toys that began to accumulate due to their generosity at Christmas, on birthdays, and every time some of them went out shopping, it seemed. I finally had to request that the family put the brakes on, as we were becoming the parents of two very spoiled children. There seemed to be way too much arguing and crying going on in the midst of all the stacks and shelves and mounds of toys. Finally we gave more than half of it away. After that it seemed that each of them was able to focus much better on what they really wanted to do at play, now that there was not so much peripheral stuff to distract them.
A somewhat comic example of a flaw in human nature, that most people with kids have seen, is what happens when two little boys are on the floor with a huge heap of Hot Wheels cars between them. One of the two will inevitably try to gather all he can into a corral between his legs. He will even lie down and try to cover the pile with his arms or torso to protect it from having even one of them taken away. He won’t be able to enjoy a thing about them by doing so; and he won’t be enjoying the time that he could be playing with his friend. He thinks that by having it all he will be the happiest boy in the room, but it never works out that way.
When I think of that picture, I think again of my father as a young boy on the parlour floor on Christmas day. He is as happy as can be with his one and only gift from his poor farming parents– a homemade chalkboard and a little box of chalk. I am sure that my father knew the secret of happiness even then.
Thank you Dad,