Giving is a must in my culture. People give a lot. They give the best, especially to a guest. If you visit someone’s home and like an item, they are likely to gift it to you. If someone pays you a visit, they are likely to bring you gifts.
But my perception of giving in my culture is that people often give in order to receive.
Perhaps that’s how people have survived in my part of the world. My grandma still keeps books with careful notes of which wedding or funeral she attended and how much money she gifted to friends, neighbours and relatives. She expects that one day she’ll receive back a matching contribution.
So, to me, giving and receiving is somehow entangled and both sides of the equation are difficult.
When I visit Azerbaijan, I struggle to give. I feel whatever I give is not enough. It’s not customary to give token presents. People expect that I come from a wealthy part of the world and therefore should share generously. It’s true, compared to many people in my family of origin we are incredibly blessed.
This may sound like a long list of excuses, but: I hate shopping; I hate wasting time and energy on making decisions what to buy for other people; I have no sense of what others like (I often can’t decide what I like never mind people I may not have seen for many years); when I made a list of people I was likely to see during our visit, I was overwhelmed for several days – there is only one of me and several dozens of them! When I asked what people want, they became super specific. My cousin said: ‘Get me a black and white umbrella with Merlin Monroe’s print on it.’ Needless to say, she didn’t get it…
Perhaps I was never good at giving? When I was younger we didn’t have much to give and when I grew up and my circumstances have changed… well, maybe that ‘giving’ muscle remained underdeveloped. It causes me to feel a lot of shame. Somehow, being ungenerous is one of unforgivable sins in my culture.
Or perhaps, I resist giving because it’s hard for me to receive.
When I was in Azerbaijan, people came to see me laden with presents. Generous presents. And when you receive something nice you have to match its value or preferably give more. So when my old neighbour’s daughters rushed to see me at my mum’s, I felt awkward. They brought: expensive clothes for my son and daughter; three boxes of chocolates and sweets; and a pair of stunning genuine Swarovski earrings for me. I just cried that evening because I had nothing to give in return to match that particular gift.
Over the years I have become a pragmatic. It’s only visiting Azerbaijan or my Azerbaijani friends in Birmingham remind me of luxury. Perhaps I struggle to receive because I fear that I may not handle the payback?
On the day of departure from Azerbaijan I had a 1:1 Skype session. I tried to reschedule it, but in the end I decided to go ahead and have it. I was anxious about my dental surgery on 12 October, and the session was timely. Except… after relaying my fears about dental surgery, I kept going on and on about this struggle to receive and to give freely. Half-way through the session I even exclaimed in despair: ‘What does this all have to do with my dental surgery?’
It had everything to do with it, of course. The procedure I underwent on this Monday required putting a donor bone in my jaw. It came from somebody’s hip. He or she had a hip replacement surgery and donated their bone. Right up until the end of my 1:1 session I didn’t see the connection. I was about to receive a gift of someone else’s bone. Without a payback.
The sense of gratitude has been overwhelming.
I opened to receive whole-heartedly sending love and light to this unknown person. I also feel a lot of self-compassion for my struggles to give and receive, and more importantly my judgments around feeling somehow inadequate in my attempts to meet cultural expectations of my motherland. More importantly, I allowed myself to be vulnerable today. Apart from vague references to ‘dental surgery’ I haven’t disclosed my procedure openly. I felt a lot of shame. As if my teeth failing was my own fault.
And it occurred to me: perhaps what I need to cultivate is giving and receiving with compassion rather than trying to match the offering.
And as soon as I softened a bit, new realisations came in:
Perhaps, those people didn’t expect anything from me. Perhaps, they came because they still loved me. After all, there was no obligation on them to drop whatever they were doing and rush across town to shower me in gifts. Perhaps, all I needed to do is to open up and receive with gratitude and compassion trusting that when the time is right giving will happen naturally. And then an afterthought: Perhaps, I have already given enough.
Perhaps, I am enough.