At a youth led church service once, a teenage boy was assigned the reading preceding the offertory: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” He was very nervous and said instead: “It’s better to receive than to give.”
I think he was on to something. It’s harder to receive than to give.
A few days ago, I received a letter from a friend. She and a few other friends of ours had been involved in a series of zoom conversations. They are frequently frank and open. As I recall the conversation that day, I had been speaking of some aspects of my adolescence which I regretted. I had been a difficult teenager often causing my mother grief. I was a terrible student and had disappointed her. A rebellious teenager is to a single mom what salt is to an open wound. There may have been a note of self-flagellation which had crept into my voice although I had not intended it.
After I’d said this, Sally, a good friend, offered a comment about my more endearing qualities. I am not sure precisely what she said they were –– a significant factor in itself, as I think about it –– except I was aware she was being affectionate and kind. I realized after the fact that I had minimized her gesture of reaching out to me by saying something cutesy like, “Would somebody write my mother and tell her that.”
Several days afterward I received a letter from Sally. Inside was a card in which she attached a post-it note which read:
“George, after receiving a compliment on our Wednesday zoom conversation you said “Would somebody write my mother and tell her that.” I opened the card; in fact, Sally had written a letter to my mother. It read:
“Dear Mrs. Merrill: That son of yours, George–– well, he done good. You and Mr. Merrill must be very proud. Thank you for sharing him with us.”
Sally’s note was a twinkle-in-the-eye and deftly handled way by which she communicated her fondness and, even more significantly, how she’d heard in my story regrets and some unfinished business that even I was not aware of at that moment. She’d basically reached out to me in a simple gift of affirmation, “I heard you. I want you to know that.”
What surprises me is how instinctively I deflected her offering. I did it with a smart aleck, throw away quip, meant in good humor. Now I know I wasn’t being playful. I was warding off my discomfort. At a time in my life when I feel the need for the caring of others, I can get uneasy about it when it’s offered. I have problems receiving.
I’ve arrived at a stage in my life when I am increasingly dependent –– even needy (I hate even writing that word ‘needy’) in a way I hadn’t been before. Doing routine things I’d never given a second thought to, are now either too difficult physically or even dangerous. Like so many of my fellow Americans, my life is now organized around the avoidance of infections and in my case, managing other aspects of an illness.
The upshot of all this is the realization that I’ve become more dependent generally, and particularly on Jo, my wife. Fortunately, the infrastructure of the marriage is sound enough to bear the freight but still, the weight of my need falls mostly on Jo.
By nature, Jo’s a nurturer, a natural giver so the shifting marital landscape is not as much of a hardship as it might be for someone like myself whose personality is not nearly so happily endowed.
But this has created an unjust situation. It is not –– as you might expect –– that Jo is feeling overburdened by my increasing infirmities –– she regrets them, of course –– but the problem is that I’m the one beginning to resent my neediness. Even the thought of them can disturb me. When I need help, and Jo graciously offers, or even anticipates my need, rather than feeling grateful, I can feel piqued. It’s only another reminder of how bumbling I’ve become.
I’m working hard on my attitude these days.
My real challenge is in finding ways to be easier just receiving what others freely give.
As I ruminate about this, I confess a sneaking suspicion I have that my ego is a more serious infirmity than any physical and mental diminishments challenging me. I’ve suspected this before. In fact, I remember, once in my imaginations, serving my ego divorce papers. The issue was incompatibility. The case drags on because I can’t produce hard evidence that we were ever all that incompatible. The case drags on.
I’ve recently entertained the thought that after my heart stops beating, and my brain is stone dead, and even my nails and hair come to a complete shutdown, my ego will still be somewhere in the background raging that this is totally unacceptable and a grievous insult. I do believe that, in this final act of our temporal existence we call death, the ego is always the last to pack it in.
My ego keeps insisting that the role of giver is more noble, prestigious, (it even cites scriptures) than any receiver’s. My ego assures me that despite my flagging abilities that I am still in control of things, the master of my fate. I know my ego is a crock. Still, if I’m down, it can snooker me. Paradoxically, after having received a little love, some caring, the ego stops bugging me.
For those of us blessed enough to do either, it’s just as good to receive as it is to give.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.