October 22, 2013

A Gift Received. ~ Stephanie Lancaster

For someone to feel the gift of giving, one must be willing to receive.

Generosity is central to the practice of many religions and cultures and manifests in many ways.

It is a practice—and a concept—that we continue to learn about and to consider as individuals and as groups of people.

Before my dad was diagnosed with the brain cancer that took his life only 10 weeks later, I viewed generosity mainly in terms of giving money, material goods, time, and/or attention to those in need; donating was something I did because I felt it was something that I should do. Maybe, in some ways, I even thought that being charitable would bring about some good karma to me, give me a pass on hardships, and other things in this vein.

Having grown up as a regular in a church in my community, I’d heard all about giving and was very familiar with lessons from Sunday School about how it’s better to give than to receive, laboring to support the weak, and refreshing others through generosity so that we ourselves may prosper.

Over the years, I’d done some reading about the idea of giving in general and knew that Buddhist principals of generosity, Jewish beliefs about the way of giving, philanthropic views of Hinduism and other religions as well as various cultures like the Native Americans—who believe in the circle of life—all seem to be based on similar ideas: that meritorious effects come from being generous.

All in all, from my viewpoint at the time, I generally considered myself to be a person who gave to others in a generous, unselfish manner.

I’m not sure exactly when or where, but somewhere along the line as part of what my family went through with my dad’s illness and subsequent death, I have come to have a different perspective about having a charitable spirit.
I no longer think it’s right just to use The Golden Rule (interestingly also sometimes referred to as “the rule of reciprocity”), to do unto others as you would have them do onto you, as a guide.  From my perspective, people should show kindness and generosity to other living beings whenever we are able and have the opportunity to do so, and I think that’s what we should be teaching younger generations.

We should not “do good” because we want others to help us when we are in need, or because we think that will be our ticket into heaven, or to make someone proud or to impress somebody or because doing something for someone else may get us a mention in the newspaper or even as having been “a good person” in our obituaries.

Our spectrum of motivation should not be linked to a reward for doing what we know should be done, nor should it be done to avoid a consequence for not.  Self-interest should in no way enter the equation, only the interests of others and of humanity in general.  Regard for others is ingrained in the majority of us (or it should be), and thus benevolence should also be part of our nature and should not require a burden of guilt, a threat of exile, or a reward of attention, power, popularity, peaceful afterlife or anything else.

There should be no cost-benefit analysis in doing what we know is right.

In short, we should help others because we can, not because we feel we should.

A few years ago, before my dad got sick, I had a friend who became very sick.  Those of us who knew her felt terrible about what she was going through, and we desperately wanted to be able to do something to help her as she struggled through treatment and relapse. The woman was very humble and really did not like attention, and she said it embarrassed her when other people gave her things or did things for her. Each time I saw her, she thanked me profusely for whatever relatively small thing I had done for her or her family last, and many times she blushed and stammered around in an effort to convey her appreciation.

In turn, when she would do this, it would make me feel uncomfortable, and I often left feeling guilty and sad that she felt that she had to shower me with thanks. It felt as if I had burdened her instead of giving her a gift. No matter how hard I tried to stop her from lavishing me with praise and gratitude, she insisted on carrying on, and a couple of times she even said that she didn’t feel worthy of the support being given to her and her family.

It became kind of a struggle between us over time, which was obviously not at all the way I intended for our interaction to be.

Unfortunately, her health continued to decline, and the last conversation I had with her before she went to the hospital for the last time was a back-and-forth exchange just like the ones we’d been having the whole time she was sick.  We didn’t express our feelings for one another or talk about anything meaningful because we were too busy thanking each other, and I think the talk left each of us feeling as if we weren’t really able to get our point across to the other one.

Here’s what I learned from that experience, though: For someone to feel the gift of giving, one must be willing to receive.  And that lesson has fed into my thinking on the whole subject as my personal experience has broadened over the past few years.

During my dad’s illness and in the weeks after his death, there was much kindness poured onto my family, not just in actions and in materials goods but in messages and thoughts.  Throughout my life I’ve heard much talk about the kindness of close friends and sometimes—I suppose because it’s even more surprising to us when it happens—even about the kindness of strangers.

But through my own experience of being on the receiving end of kindness, I was fortunate enough to learn about the kindness of those people who exist in between, those people who we know and see, but not very well or very often.

To me, during my dad’s illness and after his death, those were the interactions that surprised and affected me the most because it was obvious to me that those people didn’t help because they felt they should or because of what they were likely to be rewarded for doing—but because they could.

Here’s something else that I realized through my own experiences over the past few years: to be able  to do for others is a true blessing.  

One who does so out of inner joy instead of outward compulsion or obligation is truly blessed.  If I give to someone else for any reason other than simply for the sake of being able to be generous, I, by my own choice, am missing some of the benefit of the giving. If I choose to take joy in the tasks I am fortunate enough to be able to do and to embrace the opportunity with devotion and gratitude, it is I who is being served and who is receiving a gift.
This new perspective, one that has come partially from being on the receiving end of generosity and partly from looking at things in a different way, as I have done since my dad’s passing, doesn’t necessarily make me want to be more philanthropic than I was before, because I think I was already charitable whenever I could be.

However, it makes me look at the opportunities that I have in my life to give to others as a blessing. Perhaps more importantly, it has helped me to find the words to explain to people, whom I have been fortunate enough to be in a position to help, in a way that works better to facilitate their understanding of the exchange that goes on between us; it is I that owe them the gratitude for allowing me to help, not the reverse, and denying me the opportunity to do so denies me the chance to receive the blessing of giving.

And I know without a doubt that the benefit of the philanthropy is much more to the giver than to the receiver, thus placing the receiver in the position of being a giver himself.

It has become clear to me that I am receiving a gift whenever I am in a position to support another living being, and I am completely clear on why I am providing that help and on why I am so grateful to have to chance to do it: because I can.


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Assistant Ed. Paige Vignola/Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: via Victor Bezrukov}

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Stephanie Lancaster