Thursday, March 09, 2017

Receiving Generosity

Over the last few months, over 100 people gave to my Karuna Training Graduate Program fund. It was an act of giving based on little received in return - literally little - a 17-syllable haiku thank you. Their generosity has been gratitude for all I have given, or for the sake of giving, rather than reward. I was – and am - grateful. But I also experienced discomfort, a revealing of my own funky ego beliefs around money, giving, and receiving.

While everyone has given to me in love-filled ways in the last few months, I have not always received with clarity. I wanted to share some of the underbelly aspects of my experience. These have nothing to do with others’ generosities and everything to do with my hyper-independent identity, difficulty in asking and receiving help, and working with entitlement and privilege.

For one, every time I would put another call out for donations, a part of me worried I was harping. Did people who’d given already feel acknowledged enough? By asking for more, did I diminish what had been given? This wasn’t a random fear – I did make this kind of mistake the first time around. That time, when people donated via GoFundMe, it was easy to quickly acknowledge them via posts, Facebook, and email. One student gave me more than $1000 and I thanked her profusely. A few people gave $500, and they got immediate thanks. But one student, someone I see every week, sent me a check for $500. I kept meaning to thank her, and I didn’t. The next time I sent out an appeal she emailed back to note she felt unacknowledged, especially since giving that much is uncommon for her. I took her for granted – I had a secret belief that people should give me that much. This is so uncomfortable to admit. Entitlement is an especially pernicious shame-pocket form of pride. I was loathe to recognize it, but grateful she called me on it. That experience helped me stay much clearer and humbler this time around.

Fundamentally, these fears also come from a deep fear of asking for help, a worry that I don’t deserve it, paradoxically. It’s a part of me that cringes when I hear one of my mentors, Tad Hargrave, say, “Ask for an embarrassing amount of help.” When I realize that’s one of the main sources of my angst, I can recognize that my asking for help is actually a generosity. It’s humbling, and it allows others to support me, which they actually want to do. It cuts my pride, my capitalist American belief that I should be 100% self-sufficient. It also has helped me to be more vulnerable, something I know is a strength but have not always allowed myself to be.

Then, there is a generosity in receiving, and it’s been a subtle skill for me to work on. From very early on, I saw myself as very independent. Because of lots of early loss, I thought it was dangerous to need anyone else. I was also given an inheritance in my early 20s, after our last family elder grandfather died. He had saved and invested well, and left us each something. It was not easy to receive a large-ish amount of money in my early 20s. I was confused and I didn’t tell many people. I was an activist, and activists are supposed to be poor, or so it seemed: I cringed when others mocked “trust fund babies,” secretly knowing I was basically the same thing.

Driven by shame, I gave away too much money. I took on poorly-paying jobs. I thought the money was endless; it seemed like such a large sum. At first, investments refilled the coffers, but then I made a down payment on a house, supplemented my low income with investment money, had medical costs, made large donations, paid for big Dharma programs; and then the recession hit. All these things ate away at the amount, until my advisor’s cautions to not spend any more of the money got loud enough for me to pay attention.

I’m self-employed, and finally, at almost 40, earning what I need to get by on a weekly basis. The shame I had around assets made my giving tainted. I started to realize a few years ago that under-earning helped no one. It was not an act of generosity if it depleted my only source of retirement funds. If I wanted to continue trainings to be of benefit to others, I had to stop using those assets. This felt hard – I thought, “There are people out there with nothing who need help more than I do! I don’t deserve it in comparison!” But self-shaming doesn’t help, either, and actually isn’t true.

Finally, learning that I need help, that I am tremendously generous even when I don’t give as much money, has helped me receive with more grace. It’s still painful at times, but I try to no longer let the shadow side of what sometimes feels like a settlement for all my early loss, get in the way of asking for help. The fact is this: either I save and invest that money now so I can get by in 30 years and ask for help now; or I spend it now, and ask for help later. It’s okay to need help. Other people do need more help than I do, but that doesn’t mean I need no help, or that my needing help takes away from others getting help. It’s a spectrum, and I inhabit my place on it with as much love, grace, and gratitude as I can.

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