For it is in giving that we receive
This phrase is familiar to most of us. The joy of giving is greater than the pleasure of receiving. Yet giving carries risk and requires courage. Whatever we are giving may indeed be ignored or refused. If it’s something sourced from deep inside, an intimate, heartfelt gift, refusal can be devastating, even shaming. Giving makes us vulnerable. It’s no wonder that many of us hold in our generosity, especially if we have been burned in the past.
St. Francis doesn’t specify what we receive when we give, only that we receive. We may at times receive a harsh lesson in humility or in the importance of detaching from outcomes. I have been known to give with a certain expectation of how the recipient would react, only to be crushed by their indifference or dislike. The lesson is not to refrain from giving. If anything, it is that giving without expectation is like the graduate school course in generosity. It’s not for the recipient’s reaction that we give; it’s to experience reciprocity.
Generosity is, itself, reflexive. The act of giving, whether of time, attention, nourishment, or material goods, is its own reward, for it binds me to the receiver. Giving goes outward and returns, a tangible enactment of our interdependence.
When I give, I receive the pleasure of giving, the satisfaction of knowing myself in this moment to be the least bit thoughtful and selfless. I receive the confirmation of my connection to another person, the knowledge that I am not alone. Whether what I am giving is to their liking or perfectly suited to them is almost beside the point. The aphorism, “It’s the thought that counts,” tells us that giving is not really about the material things; it reveals a deeper level of oneness.
I have found this to be true even with non-humans, mostly with giving my attention, but I have been told it works with offerings as Native Americans do with corn pollen and tobacco. When I go into the woods, slow down and let my senses lead me, I encounter snails and fungus, fallen leaves of brilliant design, rain coursing down craggy tree bark, a loquacious stream. These beings are all around, minding their own business (and mine, I just don’t know it). When I give my attention to them, I receive surprises in return: wonders of pattern, sound, intricacy, color and feeling that delight my mind and heart. Beyond that, there is wisdom in their examples, if only I tune into them and listen. They sing of their wildness and belonging, and of mine.
The phrase, quality time, has a ring of truth to it. When I catch myself giving my son only cursory attention in my distraction and busyness, I have the choice to try again. Usually, he’s the one to demand better from me. I cannot think of one time when I regret giving him my full attention, though I can’t even count the number of times I wish I had, when I had the chance and ignored it (and him). Starting with last night when I was playing the piano and he kept coming in and disrupting me, in a bid for attention and connection that I declined. Who knows what magical moment might have occurred had I done otherwise?
I read something years ago by a father, a practicing Buddhist, who transformed his story about parenting along these very lines. He had been thinking of time with his young son—feeding, caring for or playing with him—as cutting into “his time,” forcing him to give up meditation or reading or other adult pursuits. He noticed his attitude led to reluctance, sometimes even resentment. When he changed his story to see that time with his son is “his time,” everything changed. This is not a self-centered distortion of reality; it is an acceptance of interconnection, and clarity about what matters most.
Receiving is also a form of giving. When someone offers to do something for me or invites me over for dinner, it’s not always easy to say yes. I was taught to reciprocate, but in a way that results in keeping score and causing me to worry about whether I want to be in a position of owing this person. Giving and receiving are not about keeping score or fairness. To accept a gift or kind gesture gives my benefactor the gift of being generous and connecting with me on a genuine, heartfelt level.
If life has been good, we’ve all experienced the joy that comes from both giving and receiving. I love the process of holding a friend in my imagination, carrying them with me while choosing or making a gift for them. And, likewise, thinking of a friend who has given me something every time I use it—as I did with a simple tin of tea received for my birthday. Every cup I made reminded me of that friend and the care she put into choosing it for me, and the moment I opened it, and our time together that day, and on other days, expanding outward to an infinite web of connections and precious moments.
Giving comes from the heart, from a desire to connect and share something precious of myself. As long as it feels good to give, I have done my part. I can never expect to control or influence others’ responses. This blog is a good practice for me, to send these thoughts out daily without expectation. Periodically, I take stock of what I receive from this practice of writing and giving. It is a rich harvest indeed.