Are You Selflessly Selfish?

Mammaw, my mother's mother, was an amazing person.   I remember her tremendous devotion to her Christian beliefs, chief among them being the importance of service to others.  She was widely known and celebrated in her church, her family and her community for her piety and selflessness.  She often intoned "tis more blessed to give than to receive," and indeed it was hard to give anything to her or to do anything for her.  She was much happier doing the giving herself, and she abhored the thought of being “a bother” to anyone.  Mammaw taught her daughter - my mother - to do the same, and my mother taught me: take the burned piece of toast yourself. Say “no thank you” to offers of help.  Turn down gifts and favors, and say “Oh that’s too much trouble” and “Oh you shouldn’t have” to gifts you can’t avoid. I came home from school one day to find my mother in tears, something I’d rarely seen.  I asked why she was crying, and she replied “Mammaw is very sick, and she won’t let me take care of her.”  It was upsetting and puzzling to see my mother in that state, and later I came to understand that it wasn’t just concern for Mammaw’s health that made her cry.  It was also that she wanted to give, to serve, to comfort; and Mammaw wouldn’t let her.    In her determination to not impose or inconvenience, Mammaw was denying my mother what she most wanted:  to give, and to have her gift received.  Mammaw was keeping the “gift of giving” all to herself.  I began to understand that selflessness could actually be selfish.

Receiving that which is given may actually be one of the most selfless things we can do.  Nine months ago I  broke my spine on a remote island in the Caribbean and was air-ambulanced to a spinal treatment center in Philadelphia where I spent three months in treatment and recovery. I had few acquaintances there, and no close friends or family.  However,  my spiritual family is widespread, and once the word of my situation went out to the Philadelphia group, there was an uninterrupted flow of loving support and assistance.  People I hardly knew brought food and flowers and clothes, ran errands, read to me, and relieved my husband of “hospital duty.” Every day for three months, someone came to sit with me, meditate with me, attend to my needs, and support my recovery on all levels.  Everyone who came to serve seemed to do so willingly and lovingly, even though it was sometimes inconvenient and even costly for them to do so.

At first it was hard for me to accept.  My childhood training urged me to turn away the offers of help and support so that no one would be inconvenienced on my behalf.  But in those early days in Philadelphia, my level of need and pain far superseded my training.   I was in no condition to refuse; I could only receive.  (Thank God I did, because the generous support I received profoundly enhanced my healing process.)  Over time, as my pain and medication receded, I could have started saying no.   But I was still benefitting so much from all that was being given, and I was getting more accustomed to saying yes.  As I healed, I became more conscious and deliberate about receiving, and I started to notice the sense of joy and fulfillment in those who gave to me.  I began to realize that almost every person who came said a warm and heartfelt “thank you” to me as they left. I myself was so filled with gratitude that it was hard to imagine someone thanking me for receiving their generosity and kindness; but thank me they did.

Now many months later and a continent away, I still have occasional contact with some of those loving ministers of the heart, and they tell me what a meaningful experience it was for them to be with me through my time of need.  Had I obeyed my childhood training and said "Oh no thank you," I would have denied them that.  In my receiving their service and also their gratitude, we both have been lifted.  I have become grateful not only for their healing gifts and ministrations, but also that I could give to them the gift of giving to me.

I no longer believe 'tis more blessed to give than to receive, nor more blessed to receive than to give.   It is a selfish heart that refuses either giving or receiving; for to withhold one is to block the other. Giving and receiving are inexorably tied together, like breathing in and breathing out.  Each one enables and enhances the experience of the other.  With openness and gratitude, receiving becomes giving and giving becomes receiving. Perhaps therein lies the greatest blessing of all.