The words “giving” and “receiving” share the same root. In ancient languages, the same word often described both sides of a relationship. In Latin, the word altus means “high” if you are looking up at a mountain or “deep” if you are looking into a well. The words “guest” and “host” spring from the same root as well—a word that means “stranger.” The connection is clear, as is the hope that when strangers meet, they will treat one another under the rules of hospitality.
So too “giving” and “receiving” share the same root…they describe two sides of a single relationship, two parts of the same action. To give is to offer something of one’s self to another. To receive is to accept that gift. The act of giving is not completed until it is received. (source unknown)
How did you learn to give? How did you learn to receive? What were the “rules” of giving or receiving in your household? Did you always send a thank you note? Did you have to pretend to love every gift, even if you were secretly disappointed? Were gifts practical? Extravagant? What did this teach you about love? About community?
I raised my kids in a blended family and my partner and I had an amazing number of things in common when it came to our child-rearing philosophy. But I will never forget the day I overheard my partner telling our daughter, who was having a hard time finding a gift for her great-grandmother, “Just buy her something you would want.”
I admit I overreacted, nearly shouting, “NO! Think about her and the kinds of things she likes.” Without knowing it, my partner was sending a message to our daughter that completely contradicted my values around giving. Not only that, he was unwittingly touching a tender spot, since I had been deeply disappointed by the most recent gift he had given me for my birthday: a pair of salad tongs. (They were pretty salad tongs, hand-carved in a spiral pattern by an African artist, but still…)
This unspoken and nearly unconscious rule means that I get incredibly grumpy when asked to make a wish list. I always end up saying, “I don’t want anything.,” leaving the well-intentioned giver in a terrible position. Why? Because we all know I would be disappointed if I didn’t get anything for my birthday or Christmas. But making a list breaks my most deeply-held belief about giving: I really do believe it’s the thought that counts. If I make a list and you dutifully buy those things for me, there isn’t much thought involved. What matters most to me is never the gift itself, but the idea that the giver paid attention to my likes or needs and gave me something that would be meaningful to me.
It took me a long time to figure this out and to wake up to the fact that my inner rules about giving and receiving are not universal. Some people love making lists of the things they would be happy to receive. Some people are petrified that they will give the wrong thing and ask for a list because it relieves that anxiety so they can relax and give joyfully. And sometimes, if I just stop and ask, “Hey, why did you buy me salad tongs,” I find out that the giver was thinking about me, my love for spirals, my desire to travel to Africa someday, and how happy I would be that they were purchased at a store committed to Fair Trade practices.
In the world in which we live, it’s too easy to absorb the materialistic messages of greed and consumerism at Christmas or Solstice or Kwanzaa or Hanukkah. Those messages may even take root as unexamined rules about giving or getting the perfect gift. It’s easy to lose sight of our connection to each other and forget to stop and ask what matters most to each of us right now. What do we truly want? What can we give that will tell the world of our appreciation, our gratitude, and our love?
This season, may we offer something of ourselves to the world and gracefully receive all we are given.