Sunday, January 9, 2011

'Tis better to give than to give

In my last year of undergrad I spent a lot of time with the homeless people near my campus. I knew many people’s names and alleged stories, had given many rides to church or doctors or grocery stores, and had even been a guest in one woman’s tent. I bordered near despair in those days, knowing that my greatest service to these new friends of mine was hardly more than a drop in the ocean, but began to imagine that the sanctification of my own soul was on the line as much as theirs, and that culturing a giving spirit was only Christian way I could think to respond to poverty.

On Valentine’s Day as I was on my way to my coffee shop to get some studying done, Barbara heralded me. “I want to ask you for something,” she said, and my heart sank (as it always did) as I prepared myself for another of her elaborate expensive tragedies. “It’s Valentine’s Day,” she said; “I was wondering if I could have some money for some candy.”

Without going into any detail about the host of mixed emotions and conflicting values that went into my interactions with Barbara, I will say that I was straining to come up with a way to be generous when candy was a luxury I didn’t even buy myself in those days. Fortunately, I didn’t have to strain for long; I remembered that my parents had sent me a box of chocolates that I happened to have with me, and I gave it to her without another thought.

It’s probably all for the best anyway, I consoled myself as I walked away, bereft of my little luxury. Now she will get to feel special on Valentine’s Day, and I will not fill my empty stomach with chocolate.

But then I saw Benedict standing at his usual corner, and my heart rose (as it always did) to see him. After our usual joyful greeting in which I asked him if he had had anything to eat and he insisted he was fine even though I knew he wasn’t, he announced that he had something for me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Here,” he said, handing me a small bag of healthy treats—granola bar, apple, raisins, nuts—along with a homemade Valentine’s card apparently made by a school child. I assumed it came from the homeless shelter. A homeless man was offering me food.

“Benedict, I can’t take this!” I protested. “This is for you.”

“I want you to have it,” he insisted.

“How ‘bout I just take one thing,” I compromised desperately, reaching instinctively for the raisins because they were my least favorite item.

“No, I want to give it to you,” he insisted. “Please take it.”

I did take it. All these years later, I remember that as the day that I learned that, because it is indeed better to give than to receive, part of compassion involves giving others the chance to give. Benedict did not want my money or my things (as indeed Barbara did); Benedict wanted friendship, which for him in particular required an opportunity to give to me. The only loving thing I could provide him that day was to receive from him.

In the six years since that day, I have tried to culture a receiving spirit to match the giving spirit I’ve always been urged to have. I allow the generous friend to cover the meal without immediately planning a way to pay her back. I accept whatever odd gift my grandmother finds for me at a garage sale. I proudly display the doll my poor neighbors give me because it reminds them of me even if it was not what I would have chosen for my dining room. True friendship, after all, cannot be one-way, and the only gift I really know how to give anymore is friendship.

It is indeed better to give than (then?) to receive. Let me not be greedy with that gift.


Christian H said...

Have you read God in the Alley?

Thank-you for this. It's true of all friendships that you must receive as well as give, but sometimes we think of ourselves as "upper" in certain relationships, which makes it harder for us to receive. Receiving not only allows that other person to bless themselves through blessing others, but it also helps erode the idea that we are superior in any of our relationships. I know I find this difficult.

Em the luddite said...

I haven't. I just glanced at the description on Amazon, and it looks like quite a page-turner. Do you recommend it?