05 April 2012

The Gift of Receiving: Accepting Another's Gifts

. . .the bridges had been blown up; we squat on piers that don’t connect anything. . .
~ Ruth Kluger 

uth Kluger wrote her memoir, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered  about her experience in Austria during (and after) World War II.  After reading Richard Chess’ unpacking and exploration of her observations about bridging the gaps between “my memories” and “our memories,” I not only want to read the book, I want to take his class at UNC!

This gap is illustrated by an incident where Kluger and some friends were relating their experiences of claustrophobia.  The stories they offered seemed piddling compared to the one she could have told regarding her ride in s stifling boxcar to Auschwitz.  She felt that to have told it would have been rude, that somehow her friends would have resented her.  So she remained silent.

That struck me: this fear that Kluger had to share her story because it might make someone uncomfortable.  She said: “And so my childhood falls into a black hole.”  Chess goes on to discuss how an experience can be informative versus transformative and then relates that to writing. 

But I am stuck on the loneliness of Kluger’s statement.

Perhaps it would have been inappropriate to share her memories with the group.  Perhaps she knew that they would not have received it well.  But what if they had been open?  What if the sympathy she feared she might have elicited was what was needed in that moment?  Such a feeling could have been healing, both for her and for her friends.

Why is this?  Why is receiving a gift ~ whether it be of their time, talent, love, support, or even something material ~ so difficult for us at times?  What makes us uncomfortable with another’s generosity?  Chess discusses this discomfort and relates it to writing and learning:

The desire to understand may also be a natural reaction to the discomfort of being confronted with something new and strange, a discomfort that can trigger feelings of inadequacy and failure. Most of us, I expect, don’t want to sit with such unpleasant feelings, and we might be willing to do anything within reason to rid ourselves of them.

Feelings of inadequacy and failure.  Could that be why we are sometimes poor receivers?  Do we think we are unworthy of the gift?  Maybe we have received gifts in the past that were not freely given ~ that came at a price or with emotional strings attached.  But then, those were not real gifts.  They were bribes, Trojan horses.  So fear of gifts becomes a defense, a protection against further pain.

And we do not like pain.  As Chess says, we will do “anything within reason” to avoid it.  Some of us will even do things outside of reason.  But that is a topic for another post.

It might help us to move in the direction of becoming better receivers if we remember that a gift is always given twice: to the receiver and to the giver.  And when we don’t receive someone’s gift, we both lose. Henri Nouwen, the 20th century mystic, observed

. . . by receiving we reveal to the givers that they have gifts to offer. . . . we make givers aware of their unique and precious gifts.  Sometimes it is only in the eyes of the receivers that givers discover their gifts.
What an incredible and freeing idea! That in receiving a gift well, we are in turn giving back.

May we all work towards becoming better receivers of each other’s gifts.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela 

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when you’ve received something?  Were you ever resentful when a friend shared their story?  Share yours in the comments!
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