Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Giving and Receiving

Yesterday I went out to lunch with a friend, Bill Becker, and he picked up the tab. Next time it will be my turn.

To be sure, when the next time rolls around he might "forget" that he paid the previous time and wrestle me for the bill (maybe
that tendency in him is manifest destiny given his name, yet Bill has always been a very generous guy), so it's my job to remember and not let him get away with that. Most often, Bill—who has served as FIC's Treasurer for 14 years—and I get together at Fellowship functions, and it's not unusual for both of us to bring some beer or wine for the Board and staff to enjoy after hours. We both try to be generous, and it's part of our vocabulary of camaraderie to be quick to reach for our wallets.

After 14 years I'm pretty comfortable with this back and forth with Bill. However, there are plenty of other relationships in my life where I'm uneasy being on the receiving end. Why is that?

I like the concept of paying forward, of giving in advance of receiving—even when it's uncertain that there will be a future occasion for the recipient of my generosity to reciprocate. I like having a reputation for generosity, and I like how it feels to be helpful and doing a bit more than my share, even if my contribution is anonymous. To be sure, I don't come out ahead in every reckoning (I didn't do as much dish washing as others last weekend during the Green Eggs meeting in Denver); yet this is true in general.

The part of this equation I want to focus on is not my generosity (I like that part); I want to look at my discomfort with receiving.

My uneasiness tends to be lessened if I have a clear sense that I'm running a karmic surplus with the giver (that is, when I have "credit" in consequence of some prior generosity on my part). It's also easier if the would-be exchange occurs in the context of an established relationship, where I'm confident of still-to-come opportunities to reply in kind.

Still, I find it hard to receive. For example:
o On my birthday I try to be out of town, so I can keep a low profile (or at least a lower one).
o I frequently turn down offers of back rubs or neck massages (even when my muscles are knotted).
o When there's a special food served at
a meal, I try to not eat any (so that there will be more for others).
o I am often uncomfortable having my partner focus on my pleasure in lovemaking (I didn't say any of this was smart; it's just what I do).

The analysis of any given situation is nuanced in that I try to take into account how much it may mean to the giver that their gift is received (and
received gracefully, if at all possible). Because I can inadvertently be depriving the giver of the chance to feel good if I spurn their offer (which, after all, is how it might land with me if our roles were reversed), I try to be sensitive to this. It can be tricky navigating between what I'm comfortable with and what feels good to the other person.

Part of my understanding about how this preference developed (who knows what the entire story is) relates to my being a man living in the feminist culture of intentional community. By "feminist" I mean a culture that is cooperative, egalitarian, and not sexist. As men have much more privilege in the wider culture, I've learned to be hyper vigilant about how I might be perceived to be taking advantage of that. If I give more than I take, it reduces the risk of being seen as one more arrogant and/or oblivious male.

Another part of the story is my aspiration to be what Robert Greenleaf styled, a "servant leader." By foregoing many of the privileged trappings of power, I believe I can be a more effective as a social change agent. I'm sure that this is true, mind you, but it's how I think and it's little enough to make the experiment.

• • •
About 15 years ago I was visiting a community on the East Coast and fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies were offered for dessert one evening. Toll house cookies are about my favorite, and I happily snarfed up a couple as soon as they came out of the oven. After I'd eaten dinner, I eagerly went back for more cookies. Halfway back to my seat I was upbraided by a community member for being a pig—what was I doing taking seconds before everyone had had firsts; how could I be so rude?

Chastened, and red faced, I put the cookies back and didn't eat any more that night.

A few years later I had a friend who was fond of making fabulous Christmas cookies. Every December she'd make batches of several kinds and then mail gift packages of assorted cookies as a distinctive holiday greeting. For a number of years I was on her list to receive this bounty. However, as good as the baked treats were (and they were terrific), I got nervous about being a privileged recipient. I hadn't forgotten the incident with the chocolate chip cookies, and I got in the habit of opening the box in the community dining room and letting my fellow Sandhillians eat the cookies. Although I was careful to send the baker a note of appreciation every year, once she found out that I was giving the cookies away, she stopped sending them to me.

I was uncomfortable receiving a special favor, and she was displeased that I wasn't eating the cookies myself. Sigh.

These days, I'm pretty cautious about eating cookies, and I tend to steer clear of the dessert table on potluck nights. It's much safer that way.

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