The tea bag tag reads: “Your greatness is not what you have, it’s what you give.”
Hmmm. As I boil the water for my tea, I consider the quote. The emphasis is on the giving part. And the having part. No mention of how you got that having part.
This quote summons a flashback from some years ago when I seriously considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal church. One early dawn, while in the midst of an aerobics workout, I realized I could not give that which I did not have. Truth came crashing in like an asteroid from out of the sun. Not only did I not have that which I needed, I could not generate that which I needed by myself. This awareness, in one small moment, undid all that I had carefully planned for my life as a priest.
The tea bag’s wisdom also focuses on the actions implicit in the admonitions of the Flight Attendant who directs us all to put on our own oxygen masks before attempting to help others. Where did the oxygen come from?
- it is more blessed to give than to receive
- give til it hurts
- to whom much is given, much is expected
- where your heart is, there is your treasure
There’s not a whole lot of attention being paid to the origination part of the giving: the receiving. How does one come to possess that from which one gifts others? Is not the implication that one must have experienced receiving before one gives?
Our culture pays a great deal of attention to getting things, earning things for one-self – and then applauds it’s subsequent donation to the Good Will and Salvation Army and church garage sales. Those poor impoverished folks are helped by our good deeds, our generosity, our giving from our excess.
We pat ourselves on the back with feelings of goodness and light – and put a note in the file to make sure we remember to claim the tax deductions that “giving” affords us.
We spend little time on the other aspect of giving, the receiving. I’m don’t mean the ‘earning’, we spend a great deal of time on that. I mean the ‘receiving’. We are to be givers, right? Not takers. If you receive, it means taking. There is shame in taking, yes? There is an aspect of taking that implies we are not working hard enough to do it for ourselves, that we are weak, or lazy, or stupid, needy, or a system manipulator. There is a passivity in receiving that our independent American natures cannot readily abide. Who are we when we are on the receiving end?
And we do not receive with grace. We make sure that Auntie Bev gets a Christmas present at least equal in value to the one she gave us last year – we would not want ourselves to be ‘beholden’ in some way to another. And we decry the paltry gift that Cousin Mary gave us after we spent so much on her last birthday gift.
This discussion conjures a joke that an Episcopal priest once told in a sermon. In the short version, the scientists brag to one another that they can create human beings better than God has. They decide to have a contest to test their theories, at which point God shows up and says: Go ahead – but make your own dirt.
It is in the experience of receiving, in the humility of being blessed with bounty belonging to someone else, in the recognition of being enriched in our impoverishment by the generosity of another that we learn the truth about true giving: the equation balances only when there is both receipt AND gift.
It is in the humble act of receiving that the grace of generosity is born. If we have not the first, we have not the other.