On Thanksgiving Day, about twenty years ago, I volunteered in a community center to help serve a free holiday feast. In the morning, I peeled a mountain of potatoes. Later in the day, I handed out pieces of pie. There was a collaborative, celebratory feeling, even though many people coming to enjoy the holiday feast were facing great hardships and life challenges. Appreciation for the comforts of warm food, caring, and companionship were shared among the cooks, servers, and guests.
I believed I was there to give. What I learned was you can’t chop giving-and-receiving apart.
A young mother guided her children through the serving line as they eagerly filled their plates. It was a joy watching the children’s joy. As the family passed by, the woman reached out to me with a couple neatly folded dollar bills. Taken by surprise, I fumbled with words to explain the meal was free, there was no money owed, no need to pay.
She gazed directly into my eyes with unwavering warmth and clear insistence. Essentially, this was a non-negotiable exchange. It was important to her that I reach out and receive her offering. I thanked her, tucking the money into my pocket and later passing it on to the organizers of the event. Nobody was sure what to do with the money, this unexpected generous gift.
Giving and receiving are organically interwoven. Yet we often see these dynamics as existing in isolation. It’s an either-or thing. We learn many ways to throw the natural flow of giving and receiving out of balance:
~ withholding our giving (of love, attention, money, time, nourishment);
~ pushing away and resisting the gifts being given (by life itself, by our family and friends, by the young mother at the holiday feast);
~ giving out of debt or obligation or shoulds;
~ taking at the expense of others, of the earth;
~ giving at the expense of our own well-being, until there is “nothing left.”
I could see in the young mother’s eyes that my refusal of her gift would be disrespectful and disempowering. She was calling me to step fully into the relationship and our exchange. She showed me it was not possible to only-give or only-receive. There was giving-and-receiving circling around and around between us. It was up to me, in that moment, to keep it alive, not to disrupt or dam up the flow.
It’s very doubtful this family remembers me, but I distinctly remember them. It’s unlikely they have any idea how they touched my heart, my learning, my life. We probably wouldn’t recognize each other if our paths crossed again. Yet I still send my gratitude to the woman I met on Thanksgiving twenty years ago, wanting her to know I’m still receiving the gifts she gave.
Gratitude is a giving ~ of appreciation, of our thanks. Gratitude is a receiving ~ an open-hearted, open-handed welcoming of the gifts.
There’s a magical interweaving of giving and receiving. You can’t always tell them apart.