In my teens and 20s, I was an insatiable giver. "Give big, give early, give often," was my mantra. Giving became an avocation and I spent tremendous energy perfecting the craft of anticipating people's needs, rushing in to answer perceived longings, giving more than expected, and always taking less than might be offered. Not surprisingly, I easily found myself plenty of willing "takers."
Incessant giving offered a kind of comfort and security I had not known, helping to compensate for the myriad, unconscious emotional urgencies which came with me out of my childhood. Being seen as a giver filled me up, offering a sense of identity and focus, and temporarily calming the beasts of insecurity and anxiety. Not wholeheartedly convinced of my lovability, minimizing my own needs and making myself needed by others passed as an agreeable substitute.
Then, in my early 30s, the rather sudden onset of stage IV cancer dramatically shut my "giver" down. By the time I had metastases to my spine, I was for all intents and purposes bed-ridden. Hospitality skills withered. Selflessness slipped away, and so did the takers. Friends came to visit me from across the country, and I could hardly even smile at them through my morphine haze. I had never realized how much something as simple as eye contact was a meaningful form of generosity -- until I was unable to offer it.
Months of illness mounted up, bills added up, and my resources dried up. To help out, two of my closest friends wrote a letter to my community to raise money to pay for medical expenses and complementary treatments. Friends and family arranged schedules for rides to appointments, people to sleep over when chemo side-effects were worst, help with laundry, chores, cooking, etc. I had glaring, undeniable needs, and, lo-and-behold, people happily came to my aid. I got wrapped up inside a swaddle of generosity the likes of which I could not have imagined. Stopped in my tracks and swaddled, I finally had no ability, reason, or desire to resist other people's giving.
It was in these moments of forced receptivity that I came to know the life-changing power of gratitude, for real. My heart cracked open, and all I could feel was grateful. Slowed down, and yanked out of my self-protective patterns, I was able to notice and take in the love and care that people were sharing with me. I could not believe how amazing it felt. And not only for me -- it was clear that the people around me were genuinely fulfilled by having the opportunity to show up and give, and to have their giving make a difference.
Thus, I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life: Zealous giving at the expense of receiving can be incredibly selfish. For all of my focus on ostensibly meeting the needs of others and pooh-poohing my own needs, I was actually hogging all the goodies -- depriving my loved ones of the huge gratification that comes from being generous, having one's gifts received, and then being on the receiving end of gratitude. I needed to give, but the biggest gift I could offer seemed to be allowing others to be in the giving position, too. This insight was a "field-leveler," and a whole-life game changer.
Gratitude -- truly felt in all its glory as gratefulness (or great fullness) -- is a humbling, vulnerable state of being, which arises in equal measure to our capacity to be truly receptive. This receptivity is distinct from having the capacity to "take" what is offered, and more to do with our capacity to "take IN." Being grateful reflects our ability to recognize and nurture the tender threads of our interdependence. It connects us in the cycle of reciprocity which nourishes and balances all life. It orients us toward awe and grace. And it is not for the faint of heart...or those addicted to being in the driver's seat, as incessant givers often are.
Making space in myself to receive the gifts of life and love which were bestowed upon me while I had cancer made me recognize how hugely important it is for all of us to receive, and to BE truly received, and how important it is to feel and share both the power and vulnerability of being grateful. This is gratitude as a foundation of intimacy, and it makes giving a very different proposition.
Giving now comes as a natural expression of feeling filled up to overflowing. My impulse to be generous is a result of how deeply grateful I feel and reflects how much I am constantly receiving from my life. In this way, giving is SOURCED by gratitude, not rewarded by it. And no surprise, with this orientation, all those eager "takers"...they are no where in sight.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more