GIVING. In the next several weeks as we approach the holidays, that is what is on everyone’s mind, right? We gather around the dining room table to give thanks with family and friends, to acknowledge our privilege and the efforts of those around us who have given…selflessly. Then we wake up the next morning before the sun is up to cruise crowded store aisles, fight with shoppers for the last “must have” gadget on the shelf, and cross another item off our list so that those we just finished celebrating will know that we too have sacrificed and given… selflessly…out of love. Effort and intention abound. So why does this season, for so many of us, often feel so empty?
In the last couple of weeks, I have asked a number of people around me to explain to me their reasons for giving. Here are some of the most common responses that I gathered: fulfillment, sense of duty, kindness, service, expression of love, expectations, good feelings, meaningfulness, connection, and obligation. I thought this was an interesting mix of responses. Nothing in these descriptions is contradictory in and of itself. For example, fulfilling an obligation can certainly be an expression of love. However, I’m convinced that we have all fulfilled certain obligations without the warmest of hearts at times and have even felt a little resentful for them afterwards. I’ll take it a step further. Perhaps we have even used those gifts as weapons later on. But of course not YOU, reader, YOU would never do that, right?! I say that with tongue in cheek because I am fairly certain that we have all done this from time to time, myself included. Maybe the following scenario will seem a little familiar, if not in detail, then maybe with the overall vibe…
A woman once described for me an evening at home around the dinner table. She wasn’t feeling well and had experienced a difficult day at work. While her husband was picking the kids up from school, she was at home preparing a meal. It had been a rough week for the couple with lots of conversations about tightening finances, college opportunities for an oldest child, and some difficult parenting decisions that needed to be made. In this family, roles were clearly defined and assigned among members. Mom made dinner every night, mostly because nobody would eat Dad’s cooking. In the hour that passed while she was preparing the meal and her husband was driving home with the kids, she thought over and over about how frustrating it was that on days like this when she needed a break, her husband was unable to put together a meal that all could enjoy. The more she thought, the angrier she became. As the family gathered around the table, she placed their meals in front of them one by one. When she reached her husband she sat the plate down and said, “Here, hope you enjoy it.” Her delivery was not harsh or loud, but flat and empty. Knowing his wife well, the husband understood that she was upset. Did she fulfill an obligation to the family? Yes, dinner was on the table. Was it an expression of love? Not exactly. Did she express her frustration? Sure, and that is the message her husband received. In the days that followed, some of the stress in the relationship came to a head, and this “gift” was used as a weapon. “I made a healthy and delicious meal for you even when I was not feeling well because I care and because I love you!” This is a particularly clever complaint because it appears as both an accusation and a compliment. “You don’t appreciate me.” “I love you.” It might even read, “I love you more than you love me.” Or “I’m better at loving than you are at loving me.” Her words were spoken to elicit guilt in the hopes that her partner might hurt just badly enough to return a little love in her direction. Now, I know it seems that I am being a little critical of this woman, and I assure you, her husband practiced these same forms of communicating with his wife as well. They had perfected it down to a science. So much so that at times they were completely unaware they were doing it. It took a life of its own and seemed to drain the relationship of positive exchanges.
Do we use the gift of love as a weapon? Perhaps it happens more often than we realize. You see, it is common belief that love is in limited supply, and if I am giving my love to you, then that must mean that I no longer have it. I have simply picked it up from here and placed it over there. And if I have given you my love, then you better give me yours or else I’ll have none! Love becomes an exchange, given with the expectation of receiving, and when it seems that we may not get what we are looking for, our ways of acquiring that love are not always kind, honest, or respectful. As the saying goes, “Sometimes we hurt those we love the most.” When love becomes something that you “owe” your partner, you may feel obligated to give it, but with resentment that builds with each delivery.This resentment can bring out struggles of power and control in even the best relationships. It may seem that you and your partner are tossing love back and forth like a game of “keep away” with your relationship in the middle. In this game there can only be one winner, one loser, and the relationship doesn’t even stand a chance.
In the scenario I described above, the woman effectively used her gift as a weapon, effectively because her husband did in fact feel bad, and he responded by telling his wife how much he appreciated her and all the hard work she does for the family. He then told her that if he could take it back, he would have ordered take out for the family that night so that she didn’t have to cook and save the family from having to endure his own attempt at preparing a meal. Something that struck me was how reasonable this option of “ordering take out” was and why it wasn’t considered in the first place. But then again, the issue was never really about the cooking at all. It was about the lack of connection the couple had been experiencing and the leftover tension from the difficult conversations they had had earlier in the week. Perhaps unknowingly, the husband and wife avoided solving this simple problem of fixing dinner so they could enact their frustrations in a way they found acceptable, knowing it would easily resolve with an apology and display of affection, which is what they both really wanted in the first place. As I said, sometimes we are not so nice in the ways we acquire love. But is love acquired through these means worth receiving? Sympathy love? Charity love? Guilt-ed love? Why are we so quick to accept these? Are we so desperate for love that we forget that we are deserving of the “good stuff?” We know the difference between “quality” and a “knock off” when we see it. And even though this couple made up in the end, they know they are not receiving their partner’s “best” and will more than likely resent themselves and their partner for giving this kind of love just as much as they resent receiving it. It takes a strong act of personal integrity to say, “We are better than this. I refuse to give a knock off of my love and I won’t accept yours.”
So how do we access the “good stuff?” Well, it might be important to first examine where it is coming from. Said differently, sharing yourself means knowing yourself. Self-awareness is a key ingredient to loving relationships. One of the challenges of self-awareness is that we don’t always like what we see, and we look to our partner to accept things within us that we ourselves cannot. Validation is one of the many things that motivate our more deviant attempts at acquiring love. When validation is on the line, we rely heavily on our partner’s response because a sign of acceptance calms the anxiety of our insecurities. We are happy to sell out to “knock-off love” for the illusion that our imperfections do not exist. This means hiding from yourself and your partner and is the opposite of intimacy. Only when you validate yourself and calm your own anxieties can you step into the vulnerability of sharing space with another. Your interactions become more about expressing your love than gaining theirs.
There is a balance between accepting yourself, warts and all, and challenging yourself to grow from a place of integrity rather than deficit that is a magical combination. This means that you are responsible to yourself and hold yourself accountable to your own standards rather than possibly compromising your standards to meet your partner’s expectations. Evaluating your choices and behaviors and basing them on what falls in line with your personal values and beliefs is true integrity, and it is difficult to resent your partner for actions that you have made based on these personal values. Intimacy requires personal choice, and choices can only be made in the presence of options. When you fully explore the option of not giving at all, not just as a thought, but truly consider the possibility of it, and choose for yourself that giving is what YOU really want…that has meaning, and that is something special. When you realize that giving is just as much for you as it is your partner, you are no longer subjected to the impact of resentment and bitterness. It is a choice that stems only from an obligation to yourself, not your partner, to be honest in your expression of love. The choice to allow your partner to really see you, regardless of how it is received or what is given in return. This also means choosing NOT to express your love when it is not felt. On the receiving end, it means knowing that you were chosen, that your partner was not coerced to express their love, that what you are getting is a genuine representation of your partner’s felt experience. Now that is a gift worth receiving.
I hope that during this holiday season you will consider the messages and motivations that come with the gifts you send and receive, both emotional and material gifts. Is not giving or not accepting a gift an option for you? Maybe that means not buying “something for everybody” but being more intentional about the gifts that you do give to a select few. Or maybe it just means that you choose what is worth your money rather than allowing the advertisements to select them for you. Maybe it means that when you open the door to greet your guests, you hold them in your arms a little longer instead of opting for the “3 pats on the back.” More importantly, I hope you never feel compelled to give selflessly … out of love, which seems to imply that your love is in limited supply. That is the fast track to emptiness and loss. The contradiction of selfless giving lies within the message we receive from the experience, a message that we are all quite gifted in interpreting. It’s present in the way we feel upon receiving. An empty message creates an empty response, and as a society that’s how we feel this time of year … empty. The selfless gift which suggests, “This is not for me, this is for you,” is not only misleading, but it’s also missing the point. Take pleasure in the abundance of love and appreciation that you feel for those around you. The gift that creates connection is meaningful, an expression of love, and is not generated from an absence of self, but rather a full acknowledgment of self. It’s not given Selflessly, but Self-fully. When an outpouring of love exists, there can be no sacrifice. When your gift says, “This is me, this is my desire for you,” giving and receiving become a truly intimate experience. An experience like that should be wrapped with the best ribbon you can find with a tag that says, “For: You, For: Me”