The Other Side of Giving

Were receiving easy more of us would do it with grace and gratitude. That it is so difficult for us to be receivers has practical and spiritual implications. Our ability to receive is essential to our physical, emotional and spiritual life. The challenge is to learn to receive so we can be nourished and empowered. What is it that makes it so difficult for us to receive?



The holiday season is a time when giving and receiving are part of our daily experience. Hilary Hart, who lives on Whidbey Island, published a break through piece on giving and receiving in Ode Magazine. I found it reproduced and referred to in numerous other publications and innumerable blogs and web sites. She says: “Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of the human experience. Just as many of us long to experience moments when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, fully experiencing what it means to be given to—touched, ­nourished and even transformed by life.” “Unfortunately” she concludes, “such moments are rare in our “quid pro quo” world where there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” We all need help at times, whether it comes in the form of love, care, financial rescue or physical assistance. Being part of a community in which we can give and receive free of stigma, guilt and power dynamics is important in our lives.


Were receiving easy more of us would do it with grace and gratitude. That it is so difficult for us to be receivers has practical and spiritual implications. Our ability to receive is essential to our physical, emotional and spiritual life. The challenge is to learn to receive so we can be nourished and empowered. What is it that makes it so difficult for us to receive?


Buddhist say, “Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Islamist quote the Qu’ran where it says, “Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.” Our own New Testament (Acts 20:35) makes clear, “It’s better to give than to receive.” The headline on Tuesday’s Spokesman Review repeated the axiom. To give is extolled as conventional wisdom. Giving is a moral touchstone around the world. It’s no wonder we don’t value receiving.


Receiving exacts a price in the balance of power in every relationship. It changes the relationship between us and the giver. It reduces the us, the receiver, to the weaker position. Precisely for that reason Harvard Professor Ellen Langer says that it is useful for parents to let their children buy them gifts. When a parent receives the gift it can make the children feel more confident and good about themselves.


That might be acceptable in relationships of love and trust, like between our kids and ourselves, but it can make us very uneasy in other kinds of relationships. When in Indianapolis I was asked by our neighborhood elementary school to help deal with a situation in which the father, by refusing to sign up for the free lunch program, was causing his children go hungry. Though there was no food in the house he refused to sign up because of the stigma he felt was attached to getting what he thought was welfare. Being unemployed made him feel like he had failed as a husband and father. To receive welfare added insult to injury.


In the U.S., where we value self sufficiency, achievement and earning, when we are given something unexpected or unearned we feel guilty. Guilt is one way our conscience responds to situations in which we feel we don’t deserve the good things that come to us. “Sudden wealth syndrome” is the name that has been given to a group of symptoms—including guilt, anxiety, sleep disorders and fear of losing control—that can disturb those who win the lottery, inherit wealth or bring in huge rewards from financial investment.


We work for what we are given. At least that’s what we want to think. If we are suddenly given to, without the appropriate degree of work, then our sense of self, our values and our world view—including our ideas about fairness—become threatened. On one hand those with great unearned and “undeserved” wealth rationalize their situation as one of personal entitlement. It can free us for the possibility that we never had to deserve what we’ve “earned” in the first place. And if there’s no deserving, it means that some things, at least, are simply free.


This is what underlies the historic Quaker testimony of opposition to ‘something for nothing’ – our testimony against gambling.


Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann during a speech at the Family Research Council in promising to significantly lower funding to social safety net programs correctly referencing 2nd Thessalonians 3:10 which says people who will not work should not eat. I’d be amiss not to point out that many families currently dependent on the social safety net have family members who are employed, some full-time, recently unemployed due to our current economic environment or are unemployable—it’s not that they will not work but that income for the work they are able to do is inadequate to meet their basic needs. That is not to say that some are in dire straits for having made really bad choices in how they use the resources available to them.  


Sobonfu Somé, a teacher from West Africa, reports feeling guilty for receiving what is given but for a much different reason. She said: “One of the biggest reasons we don’t receive well is that we think receiving is going to take something away from someone else.”


Laura Doyle, the author of the The Surrendered Wife, explains that without receiving we can’t feel close to others. “Receiving is very much about intimacy,” she explains. “When we receive a gift, help or a compliment, we feel a connection to the giver and they feel connected to us.” Doyle herself felt distant from her husband before adopting the practice of holding back criticism and accepting what her husband offered, including sex. Many feminists balk at Doyle’s strategy for closeness, seeing it as the ­same old sacrifice of a women’s personal power for matrimonial harmony. But Doyle doesn’t advocate powerlessness. She says “Receiving isn’t easy, because it means we’ve given up control.” “But the more you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable, which happens automatically when you’re receiving and giving up that degree of control, the closer you’re both going to feel.”


Social scientists tend to focus on the empowerment of the giver in relationships. Doyle speaks to the more ­hidden power of receiving. “I think it’s true that there is empowerment in saying no to the things that don’t fit for you. But there is also such empowerment in saying yes, even if you’re not totally comfortable with the gift.” Somé adds an important dimension to the purpose of receiving: “Receiving heals us individually, and the gifts of that relationship can then be offered back to the community”. “We have to understand that receiving is a medicine designed to heal and strengthen us. Being seen, loved and appreciated are just a few of the gifts that one can receive in relationships.”


One woman shared that when she was diagnosed with cancer she had no family to help her. She had to ask for help from friends to get through surgery and treatment. She had never had to ask for help from people at this level before and it made her very uncomfortable. It was something about becoming the center of attention of others and also about the fear of being disappointed. By not asking, there was no risk of disappointment. She said that her experience made her think about all the times she had not helped her friends, thinking they would ask for help if they really needed it. But the truth is, it is very hard to ask and receive.


Miriam Greenspan, believes receiving is necessary for an enriching life, even when what we receive is painful. “Life is a gift we receive each day,” she says. “But the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we’re closed, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life.”


Greenspan was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and died after 66 days. Her third child was born with physical and emotional disabilities. Her work focuses on the transformation that takes place when we receive what we’re given, and discover the possibilities hidden in the pain. “The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning, and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.”


During this quiet and inward holiday season, when many of us are engaged so deeply in giving, can we redeem ­receiving from its murky associations with weakness and neediness?


Eli Thompson, a licensed massage therapist has pointed out some helpful tips about how to receive a massage. She suggests that a good massage has as much to do with what the client brings to the table as the skill or technique of the masseuse. She says that some of her clients bring with them traffic jams, challenges at work, recent arguments, frustrations, or worries. She prefers that they bring their curiosity and attention.


The first thing she suggests in receiving a massage is that you should be in the moment. You are not taking the kids to school or planning dinner. You are not with your family, friends, or co-workers. She describes what it means to not be present. It’s like when you park your car in the drive way and have no clear memory of the drive home. Were you really present? Our body and environment are in the moment…She says: “Try to be there”.


Our bodies are constantly informing us about what is happening. Most of the time we only half listen, filtering out the essentials from the constant chatter of our sensory nerve endings. Listening, she says, is a skill that improves with time. Can you hear your pulse? Can you feel your breath as it travels through your whole body? What does your tension feel like? It has much to teach.


She says our bodies are very habitual. It often defaults to old patterns of responses in new situations. She advises to become aware of these patterns. And, she says, we need to learn to let go. In our society, we spend much of our time trying to control ourselves and our environment. Massage requires a surrendering of control. And she says that if it normally takes you 20 minutes to let go and become present, that’s 20 fewer minutes of an effective massage. Her advice: arrive early and prepare yourself.


Quaker worship and our Christian faith is much like that. It is about learning to receive God’s grace as individuals within community. We need to come with our hearts and minds prepared. We need to be fully present, not as an observer but as an expectant participant. We need to listen to what is going on within and around us. And we need to be careful to not fall into old patterns of response when something new is more appropriate.


A really difficult question, especially for men in ministry, is how the church functions as the Bride of Christ. It is a powerful metaphor. It’s very hard to wrap our minds around the need for openness and receptivity to what God offers. It is so alien to common and aggressive techniques of evangelization. It is foreign to absolutist theology. So much of the theology and scriptural interpretation we’ve adopted has, beyond question, been heavily influenced by a Y chromosome.


Could you imagine a better place to learn about being good receivers than when we consider the grace of God. In that regard the Apostle Paul was quite clear – God is the initiator, not us. We can’t appropriate or manufacture such Grace. In Ephesians 2:8 Paul writes: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.



Ephesians 2:8

The Other Side of Giving

“And the Apostle says, “to everyone of us is given Grace according to the Measure of the gift of Christ, for there is one God and Father of all, (who) is above all, and through all and in you all” (Ephesians 4:6). So everyone, now as then, is to mind him that is in them all … and (mind) his gift, the Measure of Grace, the gift of Christ. For it will teach, bring them their Salvation and through the Measure of the gift of Grace they grow up to a perfect man, “to the Measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”.   George Fox 1674

This entry was posted in Messages. Bookmark the permalink.