For a week I’ve hardly been able to go anywhere or have a conversation with anyone without the encountering the subject of giving. It began when I met a friend for dinner in Downtown St. Paul near her workplace. We were returning to our cars when a woman approached us asking for the location of a battered women’s shelter.
What it turned out she was really looking for was bus fare to Minneapolis, which I ended up giving her. As I drove home, I realized I was feeling resentment; I felt manipulated by her. How she got to the point where she asked for bus fare was a bit convoluted, even exploitive, playing on our sympathies for her as a battered woman.
To be clear, it is entirely possible – maybe probable, that she was everything she said. It was the manipulation that gnawed at me.
Then I thought, “Really? You’re going to resent those two bucks? You’re going put conditions on that gift of $2?”
I realized how foolish I was. Give her the money or don’t, but if I’m going to give it, I shouldn’t cheat myself out of the gift I could receive from giving freely from my heart.
Giving is a surprisingly complex thing, fraught with baggage and preconceptions, pushing some of our hottest buttons. The word “give” has even been marginalized and rejected, as if “to give” demonstrates something improper in tone, failing to appropriately express an open generosity. People now feel the need to commit crimes against grammar, replacing the verb “give” with the noun “gift”, as in “I’m gifting you that necklace,” as if it’s by saying, “I’m giving this to you,” we are expressing something akin to condescension. Rather than screwing around with parts of speech, perhaps it is merely a matter of where we stand energetically and emotionally, as giver and receiver, which we need to shift.
The substance of the issue is that there is no distinction between giving and receiving, between the giver and the gift.
We are all both the givers and the gifts, giving and receiving every day, living in a state of symbiosis in which we are constantly sharing what we have and receiving what we need, in ways that rarely cross our minds. We breathe out carbon dioxide appreciated by plants and enjoy the oxygen that they supply. We provide a home for more bacteria in our gut alone than there have ever been humans on this earth combined. We give them food and shelter, and they keep our bodies functioning and whole.
We receive when giving by being in a place of generosity, warmth and equanimity when we do so. By letting go of any attachments or expectations surrounding the act of giving, we experience an expansiveness that promotes a state of well-being and even greater generosity. There are those times that you have given something – a donation to a cause, picked up the tab at lunch or chosen a holiday gift for a child – and you have done it from a place of genuine kindness, resulting in joy. There are times you have given begrudgingly, and instead of feeling richer, you feel drained. Instead of expansive, you feel tight and contracted.
A barrier to generosity is the paralysis and discouragement that comes from feeling overwhelmed by the needs of so many in the world who need so much. A member of my spiritual community raised this issue this same week. He spoke of the people with their “begging bowls” he saw each day on Nicollet Mall in Downtown Minneapolis. He told us of his brother in another city who is also deeply in need. We all were able to be present and understand his sense of overwhelm.
The remedy to hopelessness is grasping that each act of generosity we experience incrementally shifts the larger pattern of humanity in a way that makes it better, as long as we enter into it with a heart free of judgment and full of joy.
I am so grateful to that woman in St. Paul; I was the one to receive the gift; it was what she taught me on those dark St. Paul streets that night.