On Tuesday before the Labor Day weekend, our hot water went out. On Wednesday, the tech from the gas company informed us, with some regret, that we had a “major underground gas leak.” A new eighteen-inch-deep trench would have to be dug before a new gas line could be put in “sometime after the holiday weekend.” Since the forty-foot line would run so close to other underground electrical wires and our well pump, the trench would have to be dug by hand. We could pay someone to do this or do it ourselves.
We canceled our weekend camping plans, and invested in two well-made shovels and a few boxes of Icy Hot patches in anticipation of sore muscles. It wasn’t the end of the world, a week without hot water or the impending weekend digging project, but combined with a few other things going on in our lives, we felt a little overwhelmed. But it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle, my husband and I kept telling each other, we would just put our heads down and push through.
On Friday morning, I got the following email from my friend Diane, owner of the used-bookstore in town. Her husband, Dave, runs their large ranch north of town.
“Dave and I were discussing your digging project, and he said if there is access for the backhoe, he could probably have your trench dug in 20 minutes. He is willing to bring it over and do it. Do you think he can get a tractor into your yard? Let me know.”
I sat at my desk with tears stinging my eyes, deeply touched by Diane and Dave’s kind offer. Especially considering the fact that Diane and family live fifty miles away and are in the middle of haying season which means they get up at 3:30 a.m. to start their work day. That afternoon, I stopped by the bookstore and thanked Diane for her generous offer, but explained that the trench needed to be hand dug.
“We’re good diggers,” said Diane. “Why don’t you let us come over and help you.”
I assured her that it was going to be an easy project, and encouraged her to enjoy her weekend. She shrugged, and reluctantly let it go. In similar form, I rejected all other offers of digging help and hot showers. This was our problem and we would deal with it. I boiled water for sponge baths and got out paper plates and plastic forks to minimize dishwashing.
Saturday morning, after splitting a pot of coffee, my husband and I donned our work gloves and started in. He took to digging while I began clearing the large thicket of blackberry bushes that blocked the path of our trench. We worked in silence, neither of us wanting to voice our realization that it was going to be a bigger project than we anticipated.
We had been working for about twenty minutes when a truck pulled into our driveway. I pulled off my gloves and walked to the front of the house as my friend Sonia and her family spilled from their vehicle. She waved happily and yelled, “Hi! Good morning! We’re here to help you dig.”
“What?” I asked. Stephen came and stood beside me as Sonia’s husband, Bob, and high-school aged son, Giacomo, retrieved shovels from the back of their truck.
“I heard that you had a digging project and were going to spend the whole weekend doing it yourself,” chirped Sonia in her characteristically upbeat manner. “We’re here to help for a couple of hours. We’ll give you a head start.” For the second time in two days, I felt my throat thicken with tears.
Sonia gave me a hug, despite my dirty work clothes. “I was going to call last night, but I knew you’d say ‘no.’ I figured we’d just show up so you couldn’t refuse our help.”
Inwardly, I cringed. She was right. If she’d called in advance, I would have refused her offer just as I had refused all other offers of help. It wasn’t because I am unappreciative, it’s because I am not a very good receiver.
If there were a support group called Bad Receivers Anonymous, my friends would probably schedule an intervention and make me go. Once there, I’d have to confess that I have a hard time saying “yes” to help even when I really need it. A prime example is a couple of years ago when I fell and hurt my pelvis. Even though I was confined to the couch for eight weeks, and my husband was buckling under the load of the household responsibilities, childcare, and his own busy work schedule, I still was reluctant to receive help from others. When friends and acquaintances asked what they could do, what we needed, I would say, “Oh, nothing, thanks. We can manage.”
One of the other moms from school was onto my inability to receive. She, like Sonia, just showed up, bearing a much-needed hot meal including dessert. As she unloaded platters of food onto my counter, I started up my guilt-at-receiving mantra, “I appreciate this so much. I will pay you back, I swear. I’ll make it up to you.”
Anita looked at me and smiled. “You prefer to be the giver, don’t you? It’s so much easier, isn’t it.”
“Oh yes,” I said, feeling ungracious but very understood.
I like to give. To be giving. To have given. I like everything about the “g” word. And although I know that I give from my heart, it is also true that helping others gives me a sense of self-satisfaction like nothing else. Giving is a high. You might even say I am addicted to giving. Giving is like adding cash to a savings account and watching your money grow. Being in the position of giving makes me feel capable and powerful.
But sometimes, during the ups and downs of life, it is necessary to receive. As Laura Doyle writes in her book Things WIll Get as Good as You Can Stand* (*. . . .when you learn that it is better to receive than to give), “Receiving help can be hard. When someone assists us, we are, by our very actions, admitting that we need something. Getting help may make you feel inadequate because it brings into question whether you are capable of doing everything yourself. But since no one can do everything herself, that’s not a reasonable question. The more important question is, How much are you willing to let others lighten your load?”
Although I may never agree with Doyle that it is better to receive than to give, I believe she has a point that learning to receive is important. We all need help carrying our load once in a while.
Like this past Labor Day weekend. Once I realized that Sonia and family were not going to take “no, thanks” for an answer, I felt an enormous sense of relief and lightness. What had seemed like a daunting project moments before suddenly became doable. We made steady trench-digging progress with the help of Sonia’s husband and son. Bob told funny stories about home repair projects gone awry, and Stephen and Giacomo discussed music. Sonia came and went bearing donuts, hot coffee, and homemade salsa, while her daughter and my girls, classmates at school, ran around the yard entertaining each other. There was almost a festive air about the project, but still I was wracked with guilt that they were spending their weekend helping us.
Doyle writes that there is nothing more disappointing than giving to someone who won’t receive, who doesn’t acknowledge a compliment, or an outstretched hand. “To reject a gift is to reject the giver.”
The giver in me nods in agreement and says, “Oh yes, I know just what she means.” It is terribly frustrating and almost insulting when someone won’t graciously accept an offering of help.
The receiver in me says, “Oh.”
I have several friends who are wonderful receivers. When I compliment my friend Jillene on her appearance, she doesn’t bat away my comment with a “Oh, I should lose ten pounds,” or “I look horrible today, I haven’t slept well in days.” Instead, she smiles widely and says, “Thank you so much!” As the complimenter, I feel heard and pleased. When I threw a surprise birthday party for my friend Jara (a month early because I got the date wrong), she was delighted. She sat at the head of the table glowing with pleasure as we enjoyed celebrating her. It is easy and painless to give to Jillene and Jara because they receive with such graciousness and enthusiasm.
I think about all the offers of help I have rejected over the years, all the chances I have missed to allow someone else to feel the warmth of giving to me. This is especially true when people offer to take my children for a playdate, to the movies, or for an overnight. I have turned down so many invitations that people now make passing comments that I don’t allow anyone without FBI clearance to watch my girls. I can see that I have hurt and insulted my friends who were just trying to help.
This rejection of childcare help circles back to my mentality that receiving has to be tit-for-tat. Although I don’t keep score when I give, I can’t receive without immediately initiating a frantic internal search for how I can pay back the favor. If anything, I wanted to be a little bit ahead to keep a comfortable giving advantage. As I chopped at the blackberries, I fret about what we could possibly do to repay Sonia and her family for their help. When Sonia reappeared, I said as much.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sonia with a wave of her hand. “If there is ever a time when we need something, I know you’ll help.” She leaned in closer, “But it is hard, isn’t it? I’m always trying to figure out how I can repay people when they help us out. It’s like I need to keep it even.”
I nodded and sighed with relief. I wasn’t the only one who worried about not taking more than I could return. Even so, I understood that needing to keep even was not the best way to receive well. Writes Doyle, “If you practice this kind of scorekeeping, then every gift you receive is also an obligation. Keeping score means limiting the things you can receive to what you can repay.” As I’d found out in the last couple years, sometimes there are points in my life when despite my best intentions, I’m not in a position to give much at all.
One way to banish the giving-and-receiving scorecard is to adopt the practice of paying it forward. Instead of returning a favor to the original giver, the favor is paid forward to someone else who is in need. When I practice the art of paying it forward, all my angst surrounding giving and receiving disappears. I have been blessed with much, and repaying those blessings forward is the best way to show my gratitude for all I have received. But I would never want someone to feel obligated to me for a favor I am paying forward. I have already received, which is why I have something to give.
As I dragged another blackberry branch to the pile, I made a vow to try to get a handle on this whole receiving thing. When I show up at Jara’s house with a plate full of baked goods because I am tinkering with a new recipe, she doesn’t say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have.” She claps her hands together and said, “Oh, cake! I just LOVE cake!”
I want to be appreciative of all the cake that shows up at my doorstep. I want to embrace what is given to me with such warmth that the giver has been given a gift as well. I want to relax into the notion that there isn’t such a thing as keeping it even, but that a policy of paying it forward will keep the flow of blessings circling within my world and the wider world beyond my sphere.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone . . . and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”
Around noon, I stopped hacking at the blackberries, and ordered a couple pizzas for the work crew. We took a long lunch break on the porch, eating, laughing, trying to outdo each other with stories about crazy relatives, and generally enjoying each other’s company. The trench-digging took longer than a few hours. It was late afternoon before Sonia and her family climbed back in their truck and headed home. We thanked them again and again, and joked about planning a get-together when manual labor wasn’t a requirement. As they pulled out of the driveway, Stephen shook his head and said, “They’re really nice people. I can’t believe they just showed up and spent a whole Saturday helping us.” He paused. “We should figure out something nice to do for them in return. Maybe a gift certificate, or–”
I put my hand on his arm and said, “It’s okay. I think it made them feel good to help. If a situation ever arises, we’ll gladly return the favor, but I think they were happy just to do something for us. Trying to repay them would take that away.”
Standing beside our freshly-dug trench, I took my first step on the road to receiving recovery.