The Art of Receiving

We’ve all heard the saying that it’s better to give than to receive. But is that really true? As I’ve come to understand it, giving and receiving are two aspects of a single experience. One aspect is not better or more important than the other, any more than one side of a coin is better than the other. They simply reflect different perspectives of a unified whole.

Yet so much of our thinking and planning, especially during the holiday season, are centered almost exclusively on giving. It’s easy to overlook the fact that receiving is equally important, and it requires its own special blend of thoughtfulness and generosity.

I was humbly reminded of that last week. A friend of mine surprised me – it might be more accurate to say that he stunned me – with a completely unexpected gift.

He is the newest in my circle of friends, someone I’ve met in the past several months. I’ll call him Steve.

There are a lot of great things I could tell you about Steve, but the one I want to mention here is what I call his purity of heart. He radiates openness, caring and honesty in a really genuine yet fun-loving way. It’s what I consider his most striking characteristic, and one to which I’m very attuned.

Or at least, I thought I was.

But when Steve called to tell me about a gift he’d just bought for me – and that he was on his way over to drop it off – I balked. I hemmed and hawed. I protested. I told him flatly I couldn’t accept it. It was simply too extravagant. Rather than being attuned to his open and caring heart, I was attuned in that moment to my own fears of inadequacy as a gift-giver. I put up such a wall of resistance it’s amazing he got through.

But that’s another great thing about Steve. He’s persistent. He really wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

When he arrived, I was still mired in my concerns about imbalanced and inappropriate gift-giving. (I was also mired in my concerns about anyone except those in my innermost circle seeing me without my makeup on, but that’s another story.) I wondered – aloud, to his dismay – if he was in the habit of trying to buy people’s affection. What else could explain such unexpected generosity? The gift was so wonderful, so thoughtful, so perfectly chosen for me, it blew my mind. I wanted to accept it, but didn’t think I should.

So I waffled a bit more. Or maybe you could have called it stonewalling. I’m not really sure. I’m only sure it wasn’t particularly pleasant for Steve.

As we continued talking, I looked into his eyes, and a new realization dawned on me: he was giving me this gift from the heart. (That pure heart I’d been so attuned to, before I’d gotten tangled up in my own worries about whether he was breaking the “rules” of gift-giving.) There were no strings attached, no expectations for a gift of equal cost or significance, no hidden meanings. He just knew I would love it, and he loved being able to give it to me.

In that moment I wished I could have replayed the scene. I wished I would have been light and playful on the phone when he called, and that I’d been welcoming and gracious when he arrived. I realized anew that the generosity of giving is expanded and consummated through the generosity of receiving.

And with that realization I was able to fully accept the gift, to look him in the eye and say a genuine “thank you” – from my pure heart. And you know what? That felt good. Really good. Honestly, it felt as good as giving feels. And I’m not afraid to admit it.

A big part of what Steve showed me through this experience is that, sometimes, I still block the goodness of Life from coming to me. And the thing about the goodness of Life is that it’s meant to flow. When we block it on the receiving end, we lose energy. We’re so busy defending our boundaries that we deplete ourselves. And when we’re depleted, we have far less to give.

It’s a beautiful paradox: being able to receive generously creates an expanded capacity to give generously.

So this holiday season, don’t just think in terms of what and how much you can give. Think, instead, of being a loving conduit for the goodness of Life to flow through you. Give, as Steve does, from a spirit of genuine willingness and delight, rather than from a rigid sense of obligation or having to follow the rules.

And receive from that same spirit of willingness and delight. Let your open and grateful heart be a gift back to the giver…and to yourself.

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