The quality of being unselfish is given high value in most ethical, religious & cultural paradigms. But how does this actually work in our everyday lives? What happens when someone asks you for something and you don’t want to (or you don’t have the capacity to) give it to them?
If we were enlightened beings, I think we would say ‘yes’ to these requests anyway and all would be well.
Speaking as a certainly-not-enlightened-being, it’s a teensy bit more complicated.
In my experience, the things that people most appreciate receiving from me are the things that I’m able to give freely, without any expectation of return.
Of course, as I write, I realise that we very rarely make offerings with no expectation of return. We run free weekly Buddhist services, but this brings me the benefits of having a supportive sangha and people to practice with, and of being a ‘Good Buddhist’. I buy and plant hellebores not to do the gardening centre a favour, but because their beautiful drooping faces give me much pleasure.
We also have more capacity to give freely in some areas than in others. If someone asked me for courgettes I’d be happy to give them away, as I love tending my garden and feeding people. But if someone asked me to do their hoovering for a few weeks, even if they paid me lots of money in return, it would cost me very dearly. Erk, hoovering.
With these things in mind, how can we give more skilfully?
Sometimes there is an emergency, and we have to give whether or not we have the capacity. We might need to recuperate afterwards, and withdraw from giving for a while. This is how life is.
When the request isn’t an absolute emergency, we need to make a decision about whether we are the best person to give what is being asked for. Can we give to this person freely? What is our current capacity and our capacity in this particular area? What is our relationship with this person? If we can’t imagine giving freely, could we make a ‘deal’ instead that would help things feel more equitable? Is there someone else who is better placed to give?
As soon as we start feeling that we’re giving more than we’re receiving, I think we’re storing up trouble. Our giving isn’t freely offered, and so resentment builds. This isn’t helpful or fun for the person giving or for the person receiving. There’s nothing worse than receiving a ‘gift’ with hidden expectations and resentments attached.
When we find ourselves not able to give freely, we have choices. We can stop giving (and tell the person why we’re stopping, or not). We can talk to them about how it feels. We can strike a different bargain. We can find someone else who can help them. We can empathise more with the person who’s receiving, trying to understand why it’s so hard for them to give in return, and so feel more free about continuing to give.. All of these choices have pros and cons. Giving as non-enlightened-beings can be complicated.
So if giving freely is a good thing for the world and if it makes us happy (it makes me happy!), then what helps us to increase our capacity?
I think we have to find our own list of ingredients for this. My list includes self-care, paying attention to gratitude, practising empathy, my Buddhist faith, doing more of the things I love (and have energy for), finding easier ways of doing the things I don’t like (trying to see hoovering as a mindfulness practice). What does your list include?
Here at Writing Our Way Home, I think we’ve got more honest at giving over the years. At the beginning I was keen for people to feel they were receiving lots of things from us for free, and that people were under no pressure to buy any of our offerings.
This is still true, but for me the emphasis has shifted from “take our free stuff! *mumbling-under-breath* oh, and we offer these products too” to “this is what we have to offer and it has real value”. It’s often easier for people to value what they receive when they make a decision to hand over money (and time or energy) in return. The transaction feels equal and respectful. We are both giving freely, and the financial transaction allows this to happen. We offer you our time and energy and expertise and careful attention and love. In return you receive tangible changes-for-the-better in your own life.
Our next freely offered offering: e-courses Finding Your Way Home and Writing and Spiritual Practice starting next Friday. We’ll get the satisfaction-of-a-good-job-done, and you’ll get happiness & new insights & knowledge & reflective space & new friends etc... Or you can start our 31 Days offerings at any time.
I’d be interested in your take on giving and receiving. Do share your experience in the comments.
Hellobores by pcgn7 with gratitude