When Colleen Wainwright hatched her 50th birthday plan to raise $50,000 for WriteGirl, an LA-based mentoring program for teens, she thought the hard part was going to be soliciting donations. That, she discovered, was easy. “I was amazed at the generosity,” she says. The hard part was actually receiving these gifts.
“I realized that I could never ever pay everyone back, both literally, because I do not have that kind of money, and because that’s not the way it works. I had no other choice but to surrender.”
Wainwright, whom the blogosphere better knows as the “communicatrix,” is hardly alone. A women’s magazine recently conducted a survey revealing that close to three quarters of its readers preferred to give than receive. Long indoctrinated with the virtue of giving – “tis better to give than receive,” “it is in giving that we receive,” “God loves a cheerful giver,” etc. – most of us are far less comfortable with receiving, whether gifts, a favor or even a simple compliment.
And yet, it’s worth challenging these messages. Life coach and O Magazine contributor Martha Beck recently wrote, “Refusing to receive leaves us chronically empty, prone to addiction, obsession, codependency or an eternal psychological hunger that’s never quite satisfied.” Similarly, Laurel Schneider, a professor of Theology, Ethics & Culture at the Chicago Theological Seminary, says that becoming a good receiver does nothing less than teach us gratitude for being alive. And this thinking is hardly new; more than two centuries ago, William Blake wrote, “We are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love;”
Because of the feel-good accolades that go along with giving, it can be much harder to value the grace in receiving. As Schneider says, “It’s amazing how hard it is to accept an undeserved gift without putting it into some calculus that makes it an appropriate outcome of some sort of requirements.” If we accept that receiving offers such benefits, then why is it so hard? And what can we gain by learning to receive as wholeheartedly as we give?
“There’s very little in American culture that helps us to recognize ‘grace” in receiving,’” says Schneider. Consequently we have what she calls our “calculation regarding deserving/guilt/reciprocation,” or, more succinctly, “the exchange economy.”
Life, says Dr. Neill Neill, a British Columbia-based psychotherapist, has become a “rolling series of material transactions,” which is why we slip into feeling obligated if someone gives us anything. But aren’t we supposed to reciprocate? How many of us dread that moment when someone hands over a beautifully wrapped gift and we have nothing to give back? I have a friend who keeps tag-less gifts on hand for just such moments, ensuring she can reciprocate when an unexpected gift comes her way.
When that moment occurs, Schneider suggests we reframe it. Instead of silently flogging ourselves (or the gift-giver) for putting us in this awkward situation, we should simply open ourselves to the gift and to the act of receiving. She also warns us it won’t be easy.
Wainwright discovered this first-hand, even though she’d had some practice.
A few years before she launched her 50-for-50 WriteGirl campaign, she’d done an experiment with a friend of hers, a hypnotherapist. The experiment involved learning how to receive a compliment. The hypnotherapist even laid out a protocol to compliment receiving that Wainwright describes as, “1. Pause and take a breath. 2. Resist the urge to brush it aside by saying ‘Oh, THANK you!’ 3. If necessary, give myself a little more time to gather myself by adding something like ‘That is so NICE of you to say’ (as opposed to rejecting it outright or even partially).”
Katie McElveen could give classes on such an exercise. She hails from the South and is, quite simply, a master compliment receiver. Tell her she looks lovely and she’ll look you right in the eye, pause for a moment and then say “Thank you” with that fabulous drawl. Tell her you love her dress, or that she’s funny, or has a marvelous sense of fun, and you get the same heartfelt response. Giving her a compliment is so affirming. She makes any compliment seem like the most astute observation ever.
Not surprising, says Dr. Neill, who points out that by deflecting any gift, even a compliment, we diminish it. Conversely, McElveen and the rare others like her treat a compliment like the gift that it is. And they receive it in a way that values not only the gift but the giver.
And that’s ultimately what Schneider, Beck, Neill and Blake want us to understand: By learning to receive without obligation, we experience gratitude and nothing less than an appreciation for being alive. Or, as Schneider puts it, we can allow any gift to remind us how blessed we are “to be alive in this moment […] and how lucky to have caught the grace directed [our] way.”
It was a lesson not lost on Wainwright. As she readily admits, “I thought the reward was a warm fuzzy feeling for doing good.” Now, a year and a half later, she says, “I’ve come to realize that it was this schooling in our interdependence that was the most profound gift of all.”
Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of 14 books, including The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and One Our Kids Will Thank Us For).