Receiving is harder than giving, but can lead to even greater personal and spiritual growth.
Hilary Hart | December 2008 issue
During a visit to Paris, my mother bought me a gift and dropped it in the mail. I didn’t receive it very well. I tore away the brown paper packaging and, at the first sign of pink, let the package fall to the floor. She had sent me a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers. Pink.
When I told my friend Inge about the present, she squinted at me and curled her lips. “Doesn’t she know you don’t wear pink?”
Inge is a 70-year-old artist from Europe, tall and long-fingered, practical and willowy. She usually dresses in black and white, or the occasional beige. I met her only a year ago, but she seemed to know something about me that my mother didn’t.
In Inge’s gray, granite kitchen, waiting for tea water to boil, we discussed possible responses to the scarf, including accepting it with false appreciation, accepting it but not speaking much about it or returning it so my mother might learn my taste. As we spoke, I felt, in turn, disappointment, indignation, anger and loneliness.
Inge sympathized. “I’m a terrible receiver,” she said, passing me a bowl of organic cacao beans. “The chances that someone’s going to give me something I want or need are just too slim, and I don’t like feeling trapped between the obligatory ‘Thank you’ and the instinctive ‘Take it back.’ So I just told people to stop giving me things, even on holidays.”
I carried the bowl onto the sun-warmed patio, and placed it on her picnic table—white aluminum covered with an old kilim rug that provided a red-and-brown backdrop to a plate of homemade frosted sugar cookies, a bowl of Turkish candy, nut bread and oversized cream-colored porcelain teacups. Inge followed me out and stared at the table, wondering where to place the teapot in the crowd of offerings. “I might be a terrible receiver, but I’m a pretty good giver,” she said, voicing my thoughts.
Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, fully experiencing what it means to be given to—touched, nourished and even transformed by life.
Unfortunately, such moments are rare in our “quid pro quo” world where there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But we all need help at times, whether it comes in the form of love, care, financial rescue or physical assistance. Being part of a community in which we can give and receive free of stigma, guilt and power dynamics is key to an enriching and balanced life. Recognizing the distinction between receiving and taking is also important, especially during a financial crisis caused in large part by greed driving people to take too much, when the same kind of rapaciousness has wreaked havoc on our ecosystems.
Receiving isn’t easy. If it were, more of us would do it with grace and gratitude. Is there a way to change that? Can we learn to receive so we can be nourished and empowered? These are crucial questions, not just because the holiday season is a time when giving and receiving are part of our daily experience. The ability to receive is, in fact, essential to physical health, psychological balance and spiritual engagement. Before we can enhance our receptivity, though, it’s helpful to take a look at the reasons we fail to receive.
Giving is better, so why bother?
In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha says, “Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Qu’ran (3:92) declares, “Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.” And the New Testament (Acts 20:35) makes clear, “It’s better to give than to receive.” Extolling giving has become conventional wisdom and a moral touchstone around the world. No wonder we don’t value receiving. Who wants to embrace the lesser part?
Even science seems to bear out this lesson. Jordan Grafman, a senior investigator specializing in cognitive neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Washington, D.C., led a team that monitored the brain activity of volunteers while they played computer games in which they could win cash rewards and donate the proceeds to charity. Both receiving money and giving it away increased levels of dopamine, a hormone related to feeling good. But giving away money caused more activity, and released oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone associated with emotional closeness. The prefrontal cortex, an area involved in moral reasoning, was also activated when giving included a sacrifice of one’s own resources. The study led Grafman to conclude, “It definitely seems like you’re going to get more pleasure, if these brain activations can be any guide, when you’re giving than when you’re simply receiving.”
The study suggests that giving is hardwired into our brains, making us feel good about doing good. But does that mean it’s really better than receiving? After all, cash rewards in a computer game can’t replicate the most meaningful experiences of receiving, when we get love or life-changing opportunities, for example. Working for money “might not be the same as love, care or touch,” Grafman concedes. “But those are hard to control for in the laboratory.” It might be more fruitful, then, to examine receiving in its natural habitat: daily life.
How many people have been invited to dinner by new acquaintances and don’t feel they have to return the invitation in a timely manner, whether they want to or not? In a “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours” society, saying yes to a gift or a gesture more often than not means saying yes to unspoken obligations, not the least of which is to respond in kind. Social theorists call this particular requirement reciprocity.
Anthropologist Marcel Mauss examined ancient gift economies in his classic 1954 study of reciprocal exchange, The Gift, and concluded there was no such thing as a free gift. He attributed a “spiritual” significance to the connection between giver and receiver. “One has no right to refuse a gift,” he wrote. “To act in this way is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate.”
Mauss studied ancient cultures in Melanesia, Polynesia and North America, but many modern social theories about giving and receiving align with his early conclusions. While a few hold that the free gift and altruistic giving do exist, evidence like that uncovered by Grafman and his team could show instead that altruism always includes something for the giver, too.
Dutch sociologist Aafke Komter with the University College in Utrecht describes gift-giving as “layered” and “complex,” with many different roles in maintaining social ties and relationships. In her Social Solidarity and the Gift
, she distinguishes reciprocation as one of several motives for gift-giving, only one of which—to express positive feelings, is likely to appeal to a receiver. Other motivations include maintaining power and prestige, establishing security, promoting self-interest and expressing hostility. “Without reciprocity,” she writes me in an email, “relationships cannot be maintained.”
My friend Ying, a graphic designer who came from Beijing to the U.S. as a graduate student in 1993, knows what it means to live in a culture that accentuates reciprocity. “In China, all gifts and invitations are expected to be returned with more gifts and invitations,” says Ying. The philosophy and practice of reciprocity are so deep, explain Stella Ting-Toomey and Ge Gao in Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (Communicating Effectively in Multicultural Contexts)
, that “to Chinese, reciprocity is the basic rule of being a person.” According to Ting-Toomey and Ge Gao, who study intercultural communication, Chinese culture includes a “paramount need to repay one’s gratitude.” Reciprocity is such a strong force that one Chinese saying goes, “You honor me a foot; I will in return honor you 10 feet.”
Another role of reciprocity is to maintain harmony and humility. “Nobody wants to stand out in China. Being modest is very, very important,” says Ying. When it comes to receiving gifts or compliments, “modesty requires that you do not receive something outright,” she says. “Most times, like with a gift or food, you have to refuse it over and over before finally accepting.”
The price of receiving
Many of us instinctively resist receiving because we sense the power dynamics involved, which reduce the receiver to the weaker position. We all know how it feels when someone gives us advice for “our sake” and we know it’s to establish his or her own wisdom. We don’t take the advice, because we don’t want to confirm our inferiority. Harvard University Professor Ellen Langer puts such power dynamics to good use. “Receiving empowers the giver,” she says. “That’s why I advise parents to let their kids buy them gifts. When they receive them, it can make the children feel confident and good about themselves.”
Such dynamics might be acceptable in relationships of love and trust, like between parents and children, but they can make us uneasy in other contexts. A friend of mine, Barbara, worked at an advertising firm for five years before she was laid off. She chose not to receive unemployment because of the stigma. She had grown up in an upper-middle-class family in New England that had strong Puritan roots. For her, as for anyone influenced by Puritan values, needing help carried the hidden implication that she hadn’t worked hard enough. “Being on unemployment just made me feel like I had failed as an adult,” she remembers. “I felt ashamed at needing help.”
While shame at receiving government assistance might be less prevalent in European countries, where the social welfare system is generally accepted as every citizen’s right, the stigma attached to needing help is often a major stumbling block to accepting what’s given and putting it to good use. This is true in Western cultures, especially in the U.S., which so highly values achievement and earning that when Americans are given something unexpected or unearned they feel guilty.
Guilt is one way our conscience responds to situations in which we feel we don’t deserve the good things that come to us. “Sudden wealth syndrome” is the name attributed to a group of symptoms—including guilt, anxiety, sleep disorders and fear of losing control—that can disturb those who win the lottery, inherit wealth or bring in huge rewards from financial investment. “People who inherit large sums of money often feel a disparity between who they are and what they are being given,” says Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in California, which addresses the psychological opportunities and challenges that come with great wealth. “Guilt is a way to address the emotional impact of this gap.”
Where does the guilt come from? “In the U.S., but also in tribal cultures, we have a basic belief system that we work for what we are given,” Goldbart explains. “If we are suddenly given to, without work involved or the appropriate degree of work, then our sense of self, our values and our world view—including our ideas about fairness—are threatened.” In these situations, Goldbart suggests it’s helpful to have “a flexible sense of self and a flexible world view. You’re just not going to be the same person afterward.”
To receive, we might need to leave behind the safety net of a work-equals-reward mentality. But this requires acknowledging the existence of outside forces, and allowing for the possibility that we never had to deserve what we’ve “earned” in the first place. And if there’s no deserving, it means some things, at least, are simply free.
Another reason behind our resistance comes from a fear that taking will limit what goes to others. “One of the biggest reasons we don’t receive well is that we think receiving is going to take something away from someone else,” says Sobonfu Somé, a teacher from the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa. “So we feel guilty accepting what we are given.”
Somé, whose first name means “keeper of the ritual,” left her tribe to bring the teachings of her people to the West. Based in Sacramento, California, she writes books and leads workshops around the world. She explains that among the Dagara, life is infused with spirit. When we receive deeply we’re receiving not just from an individual but from spirit itself. And when we receive from spirit, “we receive from an abundant source that can offer whatever we need.” Adds Somé, “There is always enough for everybody. Everything from spirit is free. There is no price in receiving. We don’t need to earn what we’re given. We just need to turn toward spirit with an attitude of service. So we can feel grateful, but there is no reason to feel guilty.”
Giving up control
Receiving may be difficult, and loaded with potential conflicts, but if we don’t learn how to do it we’re going to miss a lot. According to Laura Doyle, without receiving we can’t feel close to others.
Doyle is author of the New York Times bestseller The Surrendered Wife
, which discusses the benefits of accepting what your partner gives. “Receiving is very much about intimacy,” she explains. “When we receive a gift, help or a compliment, we feel a connection to the giver and they feel connected to us.” Doyle herself felt distant from her husband before adopting the practice of holding back criticism and accepting what her husband offered, including sex.
Feminists balk at Doyle’s strategy for closeness, seeing it as the same old sacrifice of women’s personal power for matrimonial harmony. But Doyle isn’t advocating powerlessness. Rather, she’s encouraging an experiment in openness. When I ask her if it’s always important to say yes to sexual advances, she responds, “You are always in charge of your own body, and it is always okay for you to say no. … But for greatest intimacy, consider making it your habit to always say yes.”
She recognizes that reacting defensively to what’s offered is often part of an isolating control dynamic that serves no one. “Receiving isn’t easy, because it means we’ve given up control,” she says. “But the more you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable, which happens automatically when you’re receiving and giving up that degree of control, the closer you’re both going to feel.”
Somé agrees. “To bring our intimacy into a healthy level, it is important to surrender our armor and our feeling that ‘I can do it all’ and acknowledge our needs. Then we can open to receiving.” But she emphasizes her belief that it’s the spirit alive within a relationship, not the other person, from which we receive. “There is a spiritual dimension to every relationship, whether to a husband, a community or the land,” she says. “When we acknowledge this, it makes giving and receiving easier. We don’t think ‘I have to receive from him.’ Instead, we are receiving from spirit.”
Whereas most social scientists focus on the empowerment of the giver in relationships, Doyle speaks to the more hidden power of receiving. “I think it’s true that there is empowerment in saying no to the things that don’t fit for you. But there is also such empowerment in saying yes, even if you’re not totally comfortable with the gift.” And what if you still don’t feel like receiving? “I recommend ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it,’” she says. “Take the action of receiving the gift even if you’re not so sure about it. You may not know it, but you’re on your way to being that woman who feels like she deserves good things. And that’s someone we’d all like to be.”
Somé adds an important dimension to the purpose of receiving: It enables our contribution. “Receiving heals us individually, and the gifts of that relationship can then be offered back to the community,” she explains. “We have to understand that receiving is a medicine designed to heal and strengthen us. Being seen, loved and appreciated are just a few of the gifts that one can receive in relationships.”
Harvard’s Langer also puts power back with the receiver. “The receiver is not at the giver’s mercy,” she says. The receiver, she argues, is always free to interpret or re-interpret any giving-and-receiving situation. “We can either get stuck in limiting patterns of the past, or be open to new ways of thinking and framing experience.”
When I told Langer about the scarf my mother sent to me, her response was as gravelly as her voice: “Time to grow up. Alternative explanations are always possible. If you look for them, you can find almost anything. One step deeper than, ‘She is trying to control me by making me wear pink’ is to think, ‘She wants me to be happy.’ She hopes wearing pink will help you feel good.”
Accepting the gifts of life
When I was 17, I flew into New York City for the first time and fell for an old con trick, giving away my last $20 to a man pretending to be a cab driver. Standing on the airport sidewalk at night, others coming and going with the security of purpose, I felt terrified and alone. Out of the dark, a cabbie named “Elephant,” pale and bearded, wearing an old herringbone suit coat, approached me with an offer to drive me home free. Feeling the deep and essentially affirming gratitude that came with this gift taught me an important lesson: We have the power to impact each other through kindness. Receiving his help altered how I felt about community, society and our responsibility to help each other.
It took getting breast cancer for my friend Alison to overcome the discomfort of asking for and receiving help, and learn how to give. “When I was diagnosed with cancer,” Alison, a marketing manager at a San Francisco media company, says, “I did not have a husband or family to help me. So I had to ask for help from my friends to get through surgery and treatment. I couldn’t even lift my arm to get salt from the cupboard. I had never had to ask for help from people at this level before and it was very uncomfortable. It was something about the attention being on me and also about the fear of being disappointed. By not asking, there was no risk of disappointment. This experience made me think about all the times I had not helped my friends, thinking they would ask for help if they really needed it. But the truth is, it is very hard to ask and receive. And I learned that we have to look out for each other.”
Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist and author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
, believes receiving is necessary for an enriching life, even when what we receive is painful. “Life is a gift we receive each day,” she says. “But the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we’re closed, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life.”
Greenspan understands the transformative potential of being open to difficulties. She was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, where she lived for four years, after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and died after 66 days. Her third child was born with complex physical and cognitive disabilities. Greenspan’s work focuses on the transformation that takes place when we receive what we’re given, and discover the possibilities hidden in the pain. “The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning, and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.”
Psychological health depends on receiving, and so does physical health, according to Mary Saunders, a practitioner of Chinese medicine for more than 20 years. Saunders founded the low-cost Community Acupuncture Clinic in Boulder, Colorado. “Chinese medicine is about relationship,” Saunders explains. “And the most fundamental relationship is between heaven, Earth and man. Man has a responsibility to keep heaven and Earth in balance.” In Chinese medicine, heaven is related to giving, expressing and achieving; Earth is related to giving, stillness and waiting.
Most of Saunders’ clients have lived way too long with an imbalance. Myriad disorders result—including headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain, exhaustion, allergies, anxiety, severe menstrual cramps, digestive problems. “Health and creativity require equal measures of both giving and receiving,” Saunders says. “How can we really give to life if we haven’t received from life? Giving without receiving, doing without regenerating, is like burning the candle at both ends.”
According to Saunders, we receive during the evening, after the stimulating and draining workday is over. At night, she suggests, we “should rest, listen to our families, take a quiet walk in nature. But instead, we fit in a trip to the gym or our volunteer work.” Seasonally, during fall and winter—times of hibernation—we need to honor and value our receptivity, she says. “We dial down the activity a notch, spend more time indoors, by a fire, cooking, talking.”
But these times of seeming inaction terrify those who are focused on outer indications of success and achievement. At the core of our resistance to receiving, Saunders believes, is a terror of the unknown. “In our culture, we have no relationship with not-knowing. But not-knowing is the essence of receiving.”
During this quiet and inward holiday season, when many of us are engaged so deeply in giving, can we redeem receiving from its murky psychological associations with weakness and neediness? Can we offer it a more enriching place in our lives and help bring balance back into the world? Where do we start? With not knowing, as Saunders suggests. Or, as Harvard’s Langer puts it, “We can’t receive if we think we know everything.”
It makes sense. So I put away my preconceptions and tried on the scarf my mother gave me. I was surprised to see it looked good. “Hmm,” Langer said when I told her. “Maybe your mother knows something about you and pink.”