Once upon a time in a universe vast and dark -- lit only here and there by stars and sparsely populated by orbiting masses of matter and gasses that wouldn't support life -- there was (and still is) a lone living planet.

It is unique among all the universe that we know. It has water and the carbon molecules of life. It has an atmosphere that turns light waves into many shades of beauty. It resides at just the right distance from its star, the sun. As Goldilocks might say, "It is not too hot and not too cold. It is just right." That is to say, the temperature of this living planet is within the narrow range that allows photosynthesis to occur. The more we know about the universe, the more amazing and improbable is the existence of this living planet.

This is the season of giving. Christmas and Hanukkah. It is a time in the human calendar when some of Earth's people pause to reflect on the wonder and abundance of life, the gift of life. Our custom of giving is just a symbol of the extraordinary force of love and creation that has given us all the gift of life, inextricably merged with the essence of this lone planet.

My grandfather once wrote a book, cumbersome reading, self-published in the 1930s, entitled "How On Earth Did It Happen?" He was a geology professor. His wonder was grounded in rock and soil and geological time. He didn't answer the question. No one has. Though the more we know, the bigger the questions become. In fact, the more we learn about us and our planet, alive in a universe of infinite dimension, the more difficult it is to be indifferent. The more difficult it is to not feel gratitude and reverence.

Our celebrations during the winter solstice are born out of a fear comforted. Life is risky business. And though earth and the workings of nature are characterized by abundance and an exuberant offering of gifts for living, still we co-exist with danger and mortality. Christmas and Hanukkah originated as reminders of such non-physical gifts as faith, love, hope and awe, expressed in metaphor and story, for there is no other way. The nourishment they bring to the human psyche (no less incomprehensible, by the way, than the universe itself) is a sense of peace.

These are big gifts. And they are wonderful. However, there is a problem. Here it is: A gift, by its very nature, is something out of the ordinary. It cannot be taken for granted or assumed. It is not something to which we are entitled. A gift is given freely, received with gratitude and used with respect and care, for it is not an ordinary occurrence.

Sometimes we bemoan the "spoiled" children who have too many toys, expect even bigger ones, tossing one gift aside for the next with no experience of gratitude, playing with it briefly and carelessly. How often we may have said or heard said, "You don't take care of your things." The annual season of giving is fraught with giving turned on its head and inside out -- the seams showing and the beauty draining away.

Now, we have all become those spoiled children. We have been given such a magnificent gift. We have taken it for granted. We have been careless with it. We have felt entitled to whatever we wanted and more. We forgot gratitude and respect and reverence for our gift. We have done the unimaginable -- we have broken our gift.

Our gift, of course, is the earth and the life that cannot be sustained without it. We all deserve coal in our stockings, for we have not been good children. We may be able to repair our gift. But it will take a long, long time. We can only do so if we become, ourselves, good parents. We can make sure our children's children's children and on and on have the same gift we were given. But we need to change our ways. After the Big Bang, the most powerful force in the universe may just be the changing of our mind. It is part of our gift. If we use it well, maybe we can, ultimately, save our gift.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.