Naughty Santa, a Rogue Reindeer, and Other Caroling Themes
“Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone
Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and, and) you put the load right on me.”
The enigmatic song “The Weight” by The Band tells the story of a man who comes to a strange town at the behest of a friend. “The Weight” itself is the main character’s duty to check in on a variety of Fanny’s friends — Carmen, Luke, Anna Lee, Miss Moses, and Crazy Chester — and to transfer their burdens onto himself.
In three days, it’s Christmas. The holiday is richly steeped in tradition. However, gift-giving is a, relatively speaking, recent addition. Theologically, the day reminds Christians of God’s gift of Jesus to humankind, even as the coming of the Wise Men to Bethlehem suggests that Christmas was related to giving gifts.
I can think of no greater human-to-human gift than the offer to unload one’s tribulations. For that reason, recognizing that it may be a stretch, I believe The Band’s Nazareth-based ballad embodies one of the central themes of the modern-day Yuletide celebration. It was in that spirit of selfless giving that I was bestowed an early Christmas present.
In response to my column of two weeks ago, a reader let on that he was recently diagnosed with ALS, and feared that his condition was deteriorating rapidly. In spite of that realization, he remains upbeat, and even complimented my attitude and writing. The praise was welcome, but that wasn’t the gift.
He went on to offer his help to me. At the very least, he pledged to be a source of morale boosting. He concluded with, “We are in this together, so let me know!” I was moved to tears.
Such magnanimity is rare in ordinary circumstances. A casual observer might surmise that, in light of a debilitating, fatal illness, overtures of that variety would be rarer still. But it’s been my experience that the opposite is true. The ALS community is teeming with examples of altruistic generosity.
Seemingly not a week goes by without an unsolicited tender of help coming my way, often from someone who is worse off for ALS wear. This esprit de corps has been one constant in an otherwise morass of uncertainty. Inside our “band of sisters and brothers” fortification, encouragement and no-strings-attached assistance are regularly on display.
Sadly, and inexorably, our comrades fall. However, before meeting their demise, they continue to serve others through intrepid example and wisdom dispensed. By virtue of association, many of my “loads” have been eased “for free.”
ALS can feel like evil incarnate. In “The Weight,” the aforementioned Carmen offloads her companion, the devil, to the song’s first-person narrator. The mere overture of aid from my new, beleaguered friend released a torrent of devilish bulk from my figurative shoulders. Reminders that I’m not alone in my suffering always do.
That ongoing exposure to a pronounced service orientation has motivated me to emulate it. Although my efforts pale in comparison to many in the ALS community, I strive to identify need and render an assist as best I can. As Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
A pair of studies back up Jesus’ sage observation. An article published at Association for Psychological Science noted that the researchers found that “participants’ happiness did not decline, or declined much slower, if they repeatedly bestowed gifts on others versus repeatedly receiving those same gifts themselves.”
Beyond the nobility of the act, and the biblical imperative, giving is self-medicating. Per Psychology Today, the neurochemical mood elevators are dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Helping others triggers the release of all three. Thus, the “happiness trifecta” is activated!
The benefits of being the giver are also sustaining. They fly in the face of hedonic adaptation, in which the happiness derived from a specific stimulus declines after repeated exposures.
It appears that giving may be the “gift that keeps on giving” — back. It’s like a magnifying echo chamber. In that spirit, and particularly for Christmas, I invite whoever is in need to “take a load for free … and put the load right on me.”
Not ready to add “The Weight” to your avant-garde collection of Christmas carols? I’m not sure that I am, either. But I hope you’ll agree that its sentiment has more seasonal relevance than either “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Its resonance is similar to that of the Charles Dickens character, Tiny Tim, offering a Christmas dinner prayer: “God bless us, every one!”
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