The Best Gifts Are Not the Things You Ask For

As we scramble to finish shopping this week, we think back to this essay from Brendan Leonard, and remember the best gifts often don’t show up on wish lists. – Ed.

Send me a list of gift ideas for you. Why do we do this around the holidays now?

I mean, have you ever really said, “That was so thoughtful of you to buy me all the things on that list I sent you”? Have we taken the custom of gift-giving and removed the heart from it so we can get what we think we need?

Maybe having a holiday where everyone gives each other a bunch of gifts has changed the meaning of the word – we no longer buy someone something when we think of them, but in December, when we have to buy something for everyone we feel close to. Maybe we give a little excessively, and we no longer think of our mother every time we use the food processor she put under the tree for us in 2008 (or was that 2009?) along with the other 17 gifts. Maybe we just got tired of buying people sweaters and wondering why they never wore them.

In 2004, I was perfectly happy not being a climber. I worked at the REI store in Phoenix and deflected all invitations to join my co-workers at the climbing gym. Then my brother piled a climbing rope he’d bought but never used into a box and put it under the Christmas tree at my parents’ house back in Iowa. When I opened it, I was nonplussed at best, and probably told him thank you in the same tone I would have if he’d just gifted me an old toaster.

I took the rope back to Phoenix and eventually went out climbing with some guys from work. I sucked. I was scared, had bad footwork, and was a bad listener.

But something was there. I had been treading water in life for a couple years, really without an identity. I stuck with climbing. Six years later, I got my first article published in Climbing magazine. A couple years after that, I stood on top of the Grand Teton with my buddy Chris, coiling another rope over my shoulders, my brother’s Christmas gift long retired. I don’t think either of us saw that one coming when I opened that box in 2004.

One summer Sunday evening in 2006, my pal Nick buzzed my apartment and said over the intercom, “Hey, come down here, I got something for you.” I popped out the front door of the building to see him standing holding a red 1989 Trek 330, probably with the original tires on it. He had bought it from some guy for $240, probably half a week’s paycheck for either of us then. It wasn’t my birthday; he just bought it for me because he needed someone to ride with. I sure as hell didn’t need a bike then. But I rode the shit out of that thing.

It was my first real road bike as an adult, and it was perfect: Steel, classic, a downtown Denver bike. I rode everywhere and forgot about my car for five years. I fell in love with my city, riding year-round, flying around the streets at night, and met some of my best friends based on the fact that we both liked to ride bikes. I eventually broke the frame, snapping the seat tube weld directly above the bottom bracket. Four years after Nick bought me that bike, I rode another old steel bike across the country, lucky enough to get invited on a trip with an old friend, someone who probably wouldn’t have even thought of me had Nick not bought me the Trek 330.

I think about those two things a lot. Two not-shiny, not-new things that changed my life in incredible ways. Neither of those guys got up early on Black Friday or stood in line waiting for a store to open because they saw some deal advertised somewhere. If 20-something me would have written a letter to Santa, he never would have asked for a bike or a climbing rope. But without those two things, I’d be a very different person.

It’s hard to imagine needing something you don’t think you want. When someone thoughtful imagines it for you, that’s the beginning of one of the best gifts of all.

Brendan Leonard is inspired at Semi-Rad.

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