Giving and receiving

For the last few years, my husband and I have cut back on the number of Christmas gifts we buy. We still give presents to special people in our lives. Sometimes we give our gift certificates for our time and help. Sometimes we make things or regift things we have treasured over the years. We still buy gifts, but the frenzy of shopping for Christmas is no longer the main thrust of our holiday season.

The opportunities for gift giving this time of year go far beyond the presents we give to our families and friends.

For the last few weeks every nonprofit organization and every charity I have ever had contact with has either sent me a letter or called me and asked for a donation. These groups mostly have noble causes for which they raise funds. The needs for support are many.

The Apostle Paul in the book of Acts quotes Jesus saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” In reading the text before and after this quote reveals that Paul was encouraging followers to care for one another. He was talking mostly to the givers.

It is easy to forget how blessed we are and to become miserly and like Ebenezer Scrooge. How many times I have responded to a fundraiser with the excuse that I just can’t afford to give them anything this year. Being a giver is the more blessed position, but it is not always easy to do it right.

I have been hurt when the gift I carefully chose was not valued by the person I gave it to. I once carefully picked out a piece of rather expensive art that I loved and gave it to a friend. She didn’t react with the enthusiasm I had imagined she would. I have never seen the piece hanging in her home. Did she not like it? Did she realize it was valuable and is keeping it in a safe place? Did she give it away? Did she not realize it’s value and threw it out? My initial reaction was that I’d never give her anything again.

A gift, by definition, cannot have strings attached. Once we have given a gift it is no longer ours to control.

Do we sometimes take more away from the person receiving our benevolence than we give? Aren’t our acts of charity sometimes a way for us to feel like we are superior to the person who is needing our help? Do we feel like we are earning brownie points for doing good for others? Do we make requirements about how our gifts are used? Doesn’t that demean the person receiving the gift, implying that they are somehow not able to make decisions on their own? Does our gift take away the recipient’s self-esteem? Do we feel smug because we have earned what we have and have the means to be generous? Do we feel superior because we are the givers and not the receivers?

It is more difficult to be the receiver. The help we need may not be monetary. How often have we been hurting emotionally or physically and not dared to ask our family or friends to care for us? It is not easy for most of us to ask for help, to admit we cannot cope with financial difficulties, physical limitations or emotion pain? Most of us find it a struggle to accept help when it is offered.

When my children were babies, we were just starting to farm. Financially, things were tight. My babies and I qualified for food supplementation from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Each month we got vouchers to use at the grocery store for healthy foods like milk, juice and breakfast foods. I had to swallow my pride to use those vouchers. I tried to go to checkout lines where I didn’t know the checker.  The people at the checkout were sometimes rude to me when I presented the vouchers. Shoppers behind me in line looked at me like I was spending their personal money. I felt that I was being judged or that I should justify how I was “truly needy.” I was careful not to wear nice clothing that had been given to me or I had bought at a thrift shop out of fear of being criticized for my spending habits. It is a difficult thing to be the receiver of others’ gifts.

Giving and receiving are part of the same act. Both giver and receiver must be blessed by the act. Neither can feel diminished by the exchange. The giver who feels superior or self-satisfied takes something from the receiver. The recipient who feels entitled or is unappreciative diminishes the generosity of the giver. The recipient who begrudgingly takes a gift, hurts the giver.

As givers we need to learn to give humbly and to let the gift leave our hands. As receivers we need to learn to accept the generosity of others and to sincerely say, “Thank you.”

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains