We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.
Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer
A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays.
I say “brave” because it takes guts to reach across all the garbage associated with need, class, and the myth of self-sufficiency. Someone might balk at a gift of money, might see it as presumptuous or even condescending. We live in a world in which monetary woes signal a deep vein of trouble. Financial solvency, naturally, is a proxy for moral rectitude. Hell, people use the term “charity case” as an insult.
On this side of the divide, I can hear all too clearly poverty’s cruel whispers. Stupid. Impetuous. Shortsighted. Fool. If I’m stuck in the land of scarcity and hardship, my own carelessness is to blame. I misplaced my citizenship papers. I missed simple instructions that others of my native land were bright enough to grasp. The doctors and professors and architects who once sat next to me in 7th grade Algebra picked up information that I failed to absorb, and here I am circling endlessly around a single zero-sum problem: Christmas tree or Christmas gifts? Because this year, it won’t be both.
This is why I square my shoulders, smooth on makeup, and change into the cheap-but-passable dress shoes stashed in a drawer at work. When I notice — as I did yesterday — that a run is making its way up my off-brand stocking, the floor tilts and nausea roils. Exposed. Through that thin fraying, the world can see my forever-crumbling veneer of okay-ness and find out I am, in fact, poor. Surely people will begin to harbor doubts. Surely they will wonder what is is really amiss with this woman who has failed so completely to deliver on her privilege, education, ability, and access.
For all these reasons and more, my dear friend’s act was indeed brave. When she offered the gift, she risked sending the message that she sees me as broken and incapable of taking care of my business.
Instead, the opposite happened.
Well, not quite the opposite. More like the inverse, perhaps?
I actually did feel seen.
Someone made the choice to cut through the wicked illusion of invulnerability and say, I see you. I see you are struggling, and I see you could use a hand. She offered not because the struggle is a sign of failure, but because the struggle just is.
And because she has a loving heart.
And because she can.
When the note came through my email, arms much stronger than my distress folded me into a hug. A voice brighter than those hateful whispers reminded me, we all belong to each other.
My old friend asked if I would accept, and I said, unequivocally and with a warm shiver moving right through the front of my chest, yes.
The karmic chuckle came just hours later when another woman — a neighbor — texted to ask if I could pick up her son after karate. She is a single mom too, and a teacher, and always digging deep for the time and money to make it all work.
Had her request come a few hours earlier, the answer would have likely been the same but it would have felt entirely different. I would have had to lift instead of being lifted, like great, another f***ing thing I have to do. But the dear one had stepped over and opened up a window. The breeze was already passing through. The earlier offer reminded me that generosity is a choice. We all have more to give than we realize, and that even the small gift is a treasure.
My neighbor asked for a hand, and I said, unequivocally and with an easy smile, yes.
It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then?
Henry Miller, in a love letter to Anais Nin
The neighbor followed up her request for the karate pick-up with at least 4 texts. The first explained, the second apologized, the third cracked a self-deprecating joke, and the fourth explained again. I could almost feel the tightening of the knots as she worked so hard not to seem “needy” while also needing. I wanted to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder and say, you’re welcome.
As in, really: You are welcome right now, in this moment of asking, to be exactly who and where you are.
I responded by texting back her that her son is a delight, and I’m happy to help, and finally that she is an inspiration.
Meanwhile, I play the same internal game of twister. A follow-up email from the old friend sits unanswered in my inbox. Now that I’ve said yes to the gift, I also have to say yes to the insinuation that this tough little life I’m trying to manage is worth the effort. I have to suspend my disbelief and hold as credible the idea that Bug and I are important and loved.
That is quite a contortion of my default posture.
So I choose to accept the audacious notion — at least for a few moments here before the husk grows thick and the eyes narrow yet again — that we grow the sum total of generosity in the world as much by accepting gifts as by giving them.
Yes, my friend. We do all belong to each other.