(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus, Acts 20:35
John Steinbeck’s preface to his wonderful The Log From the Sea of Cortez is a celebration of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend and mentor and co-author of that fascinating record of their marine biological expedition to the Sea of Cortez—the text rich with philosophical asides. Steinbeck felt that Ed’s great talent and finest gift to his friends was his ability to receive, and in receiving with grace and delight and heartfelt gratitude, he gave the givers priceless gifts. The idea that receiving can be a gift contradicts hundreds of famous directives, Biblical and otherwise, but it seems deeply true to me.
Einstein said, “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.” But I don’t think Einstein really meant receiving, I think he meant getting or taking. Receiving involves surrendering, and that is the gift—opening our hearts to the giver.
One of my favorite books is a little tome entitled Love Is The Wine: Talks of A Sufi Master In America, the master in this case being Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak. Here is the beginning of his talk on Generosity.
Many years ago, a traveler came to a small town. The custom at those times was to open your door to whoever came as “God’s guests” as they were called. When someone knocked on your door and said, “I am God’s guest,” you were to invite him in, feed him, and give him a place to sleep.
The traveler came upon a group of townspeople and asked, “Is there a kind person in town who has space to put me up for the night? The next morning I will continue my journey.”
The townspeople said, “Well, yes, there is one person who does welcome guests. If you stay there, he will feed you, put you up, and be very kind to you. However, we have to warn you that he has a strange habit—in the morning, when you are leaving, he will beat you up.”
It was winter and very cold. The traveler said, “I’m not going to spend the night on the street, hungry. I will go and take what comes to me. I will eat, sleep in a warm room, and if he’ll beat me up, he’ll beat me up.”
The traveler knocked on the door and a very pleasant man opened the door. The traveler said, “I am God’s guest.” The man replied, “Oh, come in, please come in.”
He offered the traveler the best place and his best cushions. The traveler replied “Eyvallah.” (Eyvallah means “As you wish”. It literally signifies our willingness to accept whatever we are given—good or bad, delightful or unappetizing—remembering that it comes from God.)
“May I put a pillow behind you to make you more comfortable?”
“Are you hungry?”
The host brought out a delicious dinner, and then asked his guest if he would like some more.
The host said, “Coffee?”
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“May I make up your bed?”
The host made up a wonderfully soft bed and put a feather comforter on it.
“Would you like some water before you go to sleep?”
In the morning the host was up early. He asked the traveler, “Would you like some breakfast?”
The host served a wonderful breakfast.
Once breakfast was finished the traveler realized it was time to take leave of his host. After the stories he had heard, he was afraid of what might happen, though this man had just devoted almost a day to take care of him. “I would like to take my leave now,” he said, fearfully.
The host replied kindly. “Eyvallah,” and added, “You seem to be a man without much money. Would you permit me to give you some money?”
The host gave him ten pieces of gold. The traveler thought to himself, what a beating I’m going to get after this!
The host saw him to the door, saying, “May God go with you. Goodbye.” The astonished traveler said, “I beg your pardon? There is terrible gossip going around about you. You are the most generous person I have ever seen. They say that you act hospitably with guests but that in the morning you beat them up. May I go and spread the word that you do no such thing, that you are a wonderful man and wonderful host?”
The host said, “No, no. What they say is true.”
The astonished guest said, “But you did not treat me that way.”
“No, you are different. My other guests are much more trouble. When I offer them the best place in my house they say, ‘Oh no, no thank you, you sit there.’ When I offer them coffee they reply, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to bother you.’ I ask them to have dinner and they say, ‘No, it will make too much fuss.’ Those people I certainly beat in the morning.”
“We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing.” Billy Graham
When I was forty-eight, I blew out my knee and was on crutches for six months. I was living alone in a second-floor dwelling and did not have a washing machine and dryer, nor did I have a car or any feasible way to get to a coin-op laundry, let alone to a grocery store. This was the first time in my adult life I was so incapacitated I had to ask friends for help, something I had never done before and something I found almost impossible to do.
I will never forget the day my friend Mindy came to get my laundry to take to her house to wash. “Your sheets are scary,” she opined, glancing at my unmade bed. “I’ll wash those, too.”
“No,” I said, trembling with shame. “You can’t.”
She smiled quizzically. “Why not?”
“Well,” I said, panicking, “I just…they…”
I sat on my living room sofa listening to her strip my bed and I became so upset and so terrified, I shouted, “Stop! You don’t have to do that. I’ll…I can do it. I’ll wash them in the bathtub and…”
“Cool it,” she said, coming out of my bedroom. “I enjoy helping you. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
In those couple of hours, I came face-to-face with a big fat fundamental rule governing my life: no one was allowed to do anything for me; and that rule, otherwise known as a crippling neurosis, explained the nature and quality of my relationships with women up to that point in my life, as well as the nature and quality of all but a few of my friendships. I could never have asked the host in that Sufi tale to put me up for the night, but would have spent the night on the freezing streets if I lacked money to pay for a room.
I’m a little better—fifteen years later—about allowing people to do things for me, but only because of practice gained while I was ill or injured and needed help from others in order to survive. And what I find most fascinating about my particular neurosis is the large number of people I have met who suffer from the same malady.
Where did this crippling neurosis come from? One therapist I spoke with suggested that as the child of alcoholic parents I became a classic enabler at a very early age. In order to avoid my parents’ wrath, I learned to fend for myself, to do my parents’ bidding in hopes of pleasing them, and to ask as little as possible from them. As the therapist was suggesting this to me, I remembered that one of the very first things I learned to do for my parents—I was six-years-old—was to make coffee for them in the morning.
Knowing how miserable and angry my mother was until she’d had two cups of coffee, I would get up long before anyone else in the family, tiptoe into the kitchen, climb onto a high stool, fill the kettle with water, and start it heating on the electric range. Then I would open a drawer adjacent to the electric range and take out a big round piece of brown filter paper, which I would fold in half and then in half again so the folded filter would fit into the top of the hour-glass-shaped Pyrex coffee maker. Then I would spoon seven scoops of Hills Brothers’ dark roast coffee from a two-pound can into the filter and pour boiling water over the ground coffee again and again until the bottom of the hourglass was full of black brew.
I remember that for the first year or so of making coffee for my mother, I lacked the strength to lift the kettle high enough to pour water onto the coffee in the filter atop the hourglass, so I would pour the boiling water into a metal bowl and use a ladle to scoop the water over the coffee. After the coffee was brewed, I would make my lunch for school: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. Then, if my mother hadn’t gotten up and come into the kitchen, I would tiptoe down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and say quietly, “Mommy, your coffee is ready.”