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To Give and To Receive

It snowed last night and this morning. Now the sun’s come out, turning my lawn and flowerbeds to drifts of cold, cold diamonds. That means my neighbor Sam will be along shortly to clean off my sidewalks with his snow blower. Why? Because I pay him? I don’t. Because I ask him? I don’t. No, because he loves to do it.

There are times when we give up our own much-needed time, energy and opportunities to tend to another’s welfare. And sometimes that sacrificial giving is exactly what’s called for. We know it; hopefully the other person also knows it. But today I’m not thinking about that. Today, I’ve been considering the little and large gifts of ourselves that are a delight to provide: joyful service that truly gives as much to the giver as to the receiver. My neighbors are a sterling example of that…

I’m extremely thankful that my south-side neighbor Bob gets a huge kick out of building a missing fence section for me, hanging my new screen door, digging out a tree stump—because I sure wouldn’t. I love it that he does these things for me—always at his suggestion, even insistence—but I love it even more that he loves doing it for me. Last summer Joe, to the east, thoroughly enjoyed pruning my lilacs, then wrestling my new washer into its nearly-too-tight niche and then hooking it up in that same no-room-for-people space (a completely impossible feat of legerdemain). Sam, on my north side, has a leaf blower as well as his snow blower, and an enormous smile as he bounds up to my roof to blow out the gutters. Tim, down the alley, is a stonemason. I stopped by to inquire about how to place pavers and he brought some over and placed them for me. Rob (next-door to Tim) stopped by to remove two dead trees, at his own insistence. When my dear old refrigerator stuttered to a halt last summer, Anne-Marie, on the other side of Joe, made space in her freezer for the most imperiled items and dragged out an ice chest to help with the rest. And so on, and on, and on… No reluctance, ever; no sacrifice, only joy for both giver and receiver. So which of us is really the giver, which the receiver?

Growing up, I was assured weekly in church and Sunday school that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” The message I got from that was that just receiving was somehow shameful. Either I had to do as much giving and as little receiving as possible, or if I absolutely had to accept a gift from someone, even my parents, I needed to reciprocate as soon and as often as humanly possible. All the better if my return service involved more effort, greater sacrifice, more time than theirs had. Because in those days it really was a balance-sheet kind of thing: the idea, I thought, was to wipe out the “debt” incurred by receiving, and ensure divine approval by accruing more credits in the “good girl” column.

That’s not to say that giving wasn’t fun. I discovered that giving where, when and what I could—which was mostly service, not goods—made me feel like dancing inside. I loved figuring out ways to offer a service to my friends and family members that they would never dream of asking for, perhaps never even know had been done. Performing acts of service became not a check-mark in the “credit” column, but an activity that gave me great joy. It became very important indeed for me to find ways to be a “giver” rather than a mere “receiver,” and I did indeed feel blessed in the giving. And there were challenges to overcome…

It wasn’t all that easy to find ways to give to my mother, since she had a peculiar form of ESP that discerned precisely when I was about to do something as a gift to her—like dusting the living room—and would then invariably say, “Patsy, would you please dust the living room?” or its equivalent, just before I began. Which turned it into a required duty rather than a freely offered gift. We played that game for years and years, and Mother was an absolute genius at it. I now know she was also completely unaware she was doing it. Close as we two were, having the same idea pop into both our heads at the same time was just normal human telepathy, like thinking of someone just before their number shows up on your incoming-call screen. At the time, though, my proposed joy would quickly sour into resentment. Foiled again! How on earth was I ever going to earn the required brownie points for my “blessed” badge if she kept thwarting me like that?! Not to mention missing out on the true pleasure I received in the giving of a free gift.

Bit by slow bit, though, it was borne in on me that there were ways to give indirectly as well as directly. I consider my Mother’s Day gift the year I turned twelve to be a stroke of brilliance: I got up very early that Sunday, crept out of the house and had our good-sized lawn mowed before either parent was stirring. (Yes, in lush Vancouver the lawns can already need mowing by mid-May.) Now, one might think that was a strange Mother’s Day offering; wouldn’t it be more appropriate for Father’s Day, since it was Dad’s Sunday duty to mow the lawn? Ah, but you see, anything that gave Dad more time to relax, more time to spend with Mother—they were best friends as well as devoted spouses—would be a gift to Mother. They were both delighted, and I continued that tradition for several more years. And over those years, I began to see that this gifts-of-service business could be more multifaceted than I had ever imagined.

It took much longer for me, though, to connect my own happiness in giving, and my sadness when my own acts of service weren’t delightedly received, to the idea that perhaps others might feel the same way. It was Gran, my father’s mother, who demonstrated to me that the willingness to receive fully and happily is every bit as “blessed” as the willingness to give joyfully. Gran was a delightful story-spinner and entertainer of young children, and fed my mind and heart with her serene and loving presence. However, as I grew older I realized that “saintly” Gran had one glaring fault: her saintliness would not allow her to receive. (She’d had to listen to the same sermons I had for far longer; she’d spent half a century married to an Anglican minister and stern paterfamilias who took it for granted that loving servitude was the only blessed state.) Gran’s response when given anything at all, such as her annual birthday dinner out, was “No, no, not me. You shouldn’t do this for me. You really shouldn’t.” This wasn’t just polite demurral. She clearly meant it, even though she actually loved to eat out on the rare occasions we did that. We, of course, loving her, went right ahead with her birthday dinners, but her obvious discomfort at being on the receiving end did take the shine off our pleasure in the giving. Even today, when my dear brother Dan offers me his many gifts of help and service, sometimes I’ve been known to backslide and start to object. At which point Dan has been known to say, “Remember Gran! Don’t do a Gran.”

So, year by year and example by example through a lifetime, I’ve learned to let go of two joy-draining attitudes toward giving and receiving. I gradually trained myself—and it was a long apprenticeship!—out of the urge to reciprocate, tit or tat, gift for gift, service for service, as if giving were an exercise in book-balancing, a have-to rather than a delightful want-to. From there, I set about learning that identifying myself as “the one-and-only designated server” in a relationship was depriving the “designated receivers” of the great joy of performing openhearted acts of service themselves. Saying “No, no, I can’t accept this,” is not saintly at all; it’s selfish, and stops the glorious energy of giving dead in its tracks.

Now I know that my delighted “Thank you! This is wonderful!” gives back to the giver, which increases their joy, which then increases mine, and the cycle grows. And, in my not-so-humble opinion, the more doors we can open for joy to flow into this world, the more that joy will knit us together in ways unknown to intellectual arguments and emotional persuasion. My neighbors are surely proof of this! We’d never say such words aloud, but it’s very clear that over the years we have grown from side-by-side strangers into a loved-and-loving community, largely through acts of service delightedly given and joyfully received.

So I would like to propose an amendment to the “truth” I learned as a child. For me, at any rate, it is more blessed—happier—to give and to receive. To enjoy giving to others, yes indeed; and equally to enjoy giving others opportunities to experience that same great pleasure. To allow the offered service in, fully and wholeheartedly, is to give an equal gift of pleasure in return. Hey presto! Two-way giving, an expanding cycle of loving energy and community, and all I had to do was learn to say “Yes, thank you, I’d love that!”

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