On the Given

When I first began this blog, I wrote my initial post on the topic of perishable gifts. I had a six-month-old and a nearly four-year-old. My posts were brief, with an emphasis on imperfection. Somehow I made time for them, then, when there was less time objectively speaking. Now I have more time, so expect more of it. I miss the ability I had then to relax (sometimes) into the ephemerality of days and time and thoughts and words.

Now my oldest is six, my youngest is not-quite-three, and the tidal pull of early parenthood, the unavoidable submersion of everything I wanted to hold onto, is mostly history. The waters have (mostly) receded. And though many gifts in the meantime have perished I’m not so worried about this perishability anymore. Maybe because it’s clearer to me now that the gifts just keep on coming.

I am, however, still extremely interested in the whole idea of the gift, and the given. I’m especially interested by the idea of the given as a way to acceptance, to reconciliation with what is. What is given? We could do worse than to spend our lives in earnest pursuit of answers to this question.

All of our rituals around gifts honour the reciprocal quality in them, the importance of acknowledging not only what is given but also the one who gives and the one who receives. Anything received with gratitude as a gift is a kind of blessing: If it’s an object given or made with care, the object can be a kind of talisman, radiating love, or hope, or courage.

Lewis Hyde, whose excellent book The Gift I read years ago, writes with a lot more rigour about the economy of the gift than I’m capable of bringing to the table in the evening after a day of being with little people (speaking of giving…). But for me there’s something even more primary in all of this, something that goes all the way back to childhood: the offering basket passed down the rows of chairs, over people’s knees, the way it felt to be a child placing coins into the basket.

We all want to have something to offer. Though I stand now on very different theological ground than my parents did then, I have retained many of the basic impressions they made on me with their wild faith, including this: the implicit idea that giving and receiving are not so much opposites as phases of one another. My dad used to sing a song that went like this: “Give what you have and the Lord will give you more.” My parents believed in this fundamental generosity: the more you give, the more you are able to receive.

Maybe they were right. Maybe giving and receiving–like ice, water, and vapour–are different phases of the same substance, whose basic identity does not alter despite changes in its physical form. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we always had something to offer, if what we needed was always waiting to be received?

This year I have run on empty. I have survived the perishing of gifts and walked through that dark place where it seems the giving and receiving of gifts has ceased. For a long time I felt I had nothing to give.

But now I find myself ready to give again. Able to host friends, prepare food, offer care. Writing poems like a house on fire. I’m giving what I have, and it is enough. I’m open to receiving more.

Listening is everything, I increasingly think. Admitting where we are, in whatever cycle we’re caught up in, accepting what’s given. Listening is the ground of artistic practice, the ground of self-knowledge, also the ground of care, of generosity, of all relationship. Lately I’ve been aware–if imperfect in the application of this awareness–that listening to the given, to what’s given, and letting it be what it is, as it is, is perhaps the first duty, the core generosity. Perhaps it is the whole thing.

The novel I’ve been working on for a shocking number of years now is deeply thematically invested in thinking about care and harm, about dereliction and responsibility. And since I’ve also been caring for little children for the past six years, I’ve been thinking very concretely about care, what it is, how to give it, etc.

It occurred to me a few years ago that care, like harm, involves the crossing of boundaries. It’s just that care crosses boundaries gently, carefully, in attunement to the Other–while harm crosses boundaries selfishly, perhaps angrily, but certainly for the wrong motives, and always without the requisite attunement. Harm is not always intentional; care is. Though, of course, we are responsible for outcome regardless of intention.

Generosity–giving what it is in us to give–and gratitude–seeing what the gifts in fact are–both depend on listening. And listening means accepting what isn’t given, what the gifts are not, no matter how we wish it could be otherwise.

I remind my kids often of the importance of accepting what’s offered, what’s not offered. “What’s offered?” they often ask me now, when they’re hungry for something to eat. It’s a practice, not always an easy one, for them and for me too, to accept the answer, whatever it is.

Very recently I’ve also been learning something new: that as much as we might wish to offer care, if it isn’t invited, that’s something we must listen to. I’m learning to listen with greater attunement to what is and is not invited, as well as to what’s offered. What’s wanted. As Wendell Berry says, “The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.”

To listen to and accept our limits, and the limits of those around us, is to learn. It is also, perhaps, the first act of generosity.

To attune ourselves to others sufficiently to ascertain whether the gift is apt. That’s stage two listening. More practice will be required.

Maybe we have a gift but it isn’t the right one. Maybe sometimes we are empty handed, even when we aren’t.

I think this is ok, even good, to accept.

1 comment to On the Given

  • “Generosity–giving what it is in us to give–and gratitude–seeing what the gifts in fact are–both depend on listening. And listening means accepting what isn’t given, what the gifts are not, no matter how we wish it could be otherwise.” Beautifully put. Thank you.

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