My sister, Mae, is obsessed with yard sales and thrift shops, always looking for the buried treasure amongst other people’s discards.
“I found a beautiful bracelet for Mom,” she’ll tell me. “Really, you should see it! Would one of your girls like a purse. I bet they could use it. It’s really stylish and only fifty cents!”
Mae is sixty-three years-old and further removed from what is “stylish” than I am, but I don’t tell her so. Instead, I graciously suggest that they likely have more purses than they know what to do with, being working girls and all.
Mae’s generosity is never without a catch, so recipient beware. She is so persistent that caught in a weak moment I will relent and accept a gift on behalf of myself or others. This immediately triggers a flurry of phone calls as to when I will come pick up the illustrious item – as many as six a day. Once retrieved, she will never ever let you forget the gesture.
“Remember that owl plaque I gave you once?” you said recently. “Do you still have that?”
The object in question was a small wooden plaque with an owl engraved into it and some words of “wisdom”. “I hung it in my first classroom,” I tell her. “I thought the message was appropriate there.
“Oh yeah, what did it say?”
I really can’t remember.
“I don’t have room for anything else,” my Mom will complain, “but I can’t throw anything out because she looks for it when she visits.”
Perhaps this is a good place to interject that my sister Mae is mentally ill, suffering from schizophrenia. Giving is her way of connecting to the world. I have never understood this relentless need of hers, and am equally stymied by the fact that she outright refuses to receive anything from anyone.
“Why would you give me that? It’s too expensive,” she might say. Birthday, Christmas, or just because gifts are handed back belligerently or quickly passed on to someone else. She will not have the stain of taking on her hands.
What has caused this imbalance in Mae? I often wonder. Yet, if I am honest, I too have never been totally comfortable with the whole giving and receiving concept. Social etiquette is somehow lost in our family.
Children learn from the example set. In our family, there was always something sinister lurking behind the act of giving. Our father, for example, would lavish my mother with new, expensive clothing, but the fact that it usually occurred when she was at the end of her rope and threatening to leave him, was never lost on us. I clearly remember questioning how he could afford it all at a time when Mom didn’t have enough household money to pay for the basics. Father’s gifts were clearly a ploy to control her. I swore never to fall into that trap.
Gifts from my mother similarly conveyed a message. She would favour one child over another, and excuse it by saying that the child in question had greater need than the others. Her logic was confusing, if not outright cruel.
Mae’s inability to escape the cycle of unhealthy giving is a symptom of the dysfunction we lived. She cannot escape.
Escaping and experiencing something different is what I strive for. Yet, years of guilt for not having given enough to my children, or embarrassment for having missed an opportunity to give to another when everyone else has risen to the occasion, continue to plague me.
“Unattached giving” is the lesson to learn according to today’s reflection in The Tao of Joy Every Day, by Derek Lin (my inspiration for this blog). To give only what you can spare, and without expectation of return.
“Give a small amount every day…” Lin advises.
Now confined to home with illness, this challenge requires a real shift in perspective on my part. What is giving? What does it involve? If I begin with the assumption that anyone, despite their present circumstances, is capable of giving, then I have to redefine what that means.
I cannot offer to take someone out for lunch, or even get out to buy them a card, so how can I still fulfill this task? What do I have to offer?
Gifts, I decide, come in many forms, and are defined as much by the joy that they bring, as they are by the value they hold for the person giving. So what do I value right now? Well, I value my energy (as it is limited), and I value my writing. I am a good listener, and I will share whatever I can to brighten someone’s day, but I am constantly learning the importance of boundaries, so to give more than I have, energy-wise, has immediate and devastating repercussions on my health. Reaching out, if that is the gift I can give, has to be sparing, and I somehow have to learn that this is good enough.
Boy, this “Tao of giving” stuff is not as easy as it sounds, and I surely, have lots left to learn.