A Harder Lesson

 

When I was a child, I was taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I learned the lesson so well that receiving became almost impossible for me. But I’ve always loved giving – loved thinking of ways to give, loved doing things for other people, loved seeing others take pleasure in the gifts. I think part of the joy I’ve always felt in giving comes from knowing I was able to give. My pleasure was not only in the giving, but also in the knowledge that I had the resources, time, skills, and energy to give.

In other words, I’ve given to give pleasure or help to others, but also to give pleasure to myself. And when I think about it, I’m not at all sure our motives ever escape this sort of mixing. The kind of spontaneous outpouring of love and support and aid that appears the day after some natural disaster is probably as close as we poor humans ever get to pure giving – we see the suffering of others, and we want to help. But how long does it take for self to intervene, for us to start thinking about practical matters of distribution and how much we can really afford? Certainly it isn’t wrong for us to think about such practical matters – it’s important that our help go where it’s most needed, and that it actually do some good. All I’m really saying is that being human means never fully getting away from the self.

Even when we make real sacrifices, give up something we treasure for the good of another person, we know that there are benefits that return to us. Sometimes those benefits are in the form of love or service in return. And if these benefits fail to materialize – if the love doesn’t show itself, if the sacrifice is wasted or doesn’t produce the results we intended – we can be disappointed and bitter. Think of the woman who gives up her own education to go to work and support her husband through graduate school, only to be discarded for a trophy wife when he reaches midlife. Think of parents who struggle to provide for their children and quite reasonably hope that those children will be a comfort to them in their old age, only to find themselves estranged from those same children when they are grown.

Sometimes the benefits of giving are in the form of self-satisfaction, the pleasure of knowing we have done something that feels right and good. A person who gives openly and is praised for his or her giving may be like the hypocrite who prays publicly and has, as Jesus tells us, received his reward for praying. (Matthew 6:5) But even those who give in secret, so that those who receive the gift never know where it came from, find it very difficult to escape a feeling of self-satisfaction. We say, “To God be the glory,” but even in saying it we make an exhibition of our piety, if only to ourselves.

I wonder sometimes whether the ancient mystics were ever able to escape the self so fully that they could act out of unmixed motives. If one can get so far lost in the love of God that the self is forgotten, then one’s actions and motives may be pure. But only God knows if this has ever happened. I’m sure it hasn’t happened to me. The best I’ve ever been able to do is to learn the lesson of giving freely and cheerfully.

At this point in my life, however, God is teaching me a harder lesson, the lesson of receiving. I know that accepting the help of others can be in its own way a gift and blessing to them. When I resist making my needs known and avoid telling even my closest friends how things really are, I remember the times I’ve told others, quite truthfully, that being able to help them or serve them in some way is a real source of pleasure for me. I’ve told them that they are giving me a gift when they accept my help. And I meant it. But still it’s a struggle to admit my own needs.

Along with the gratitude I feel for the gifts of others, I’m learning the powerlessness, the frustration, the sense of inadequacy, and the resentment of receiving. I’m gaining a lot of sympathy for all those in need who find it difficult to receive the gifts of others with good grace. And I see in my reluctance to receive a deeper question. If I cannot accept the gifts of friends, how can I possibly accept the greatest gift, God’s grace?

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