What It Means to ‘Receive in Order to Give’

Robert, a good friend of mine in his mid fifties recently celebrated his birthday in a way those who really do have everything might consider. He is a very successful lawyer in Florida, happily married for three decades with two wonderful sons – one a senior and excellent student at Vanderbilt and the other a passionate liberal-progressive writer for leading platforms like AlterNet and Salon and about to enter law school. He could have done just about anything he wanted, and as a generous philanthropist and someone deeply committed to community, whatever way he chose to celebrate would easily have been justified.

Here’s what he did: Wanting to be with his wife and two sons, he arranged for his family to be at Vanderbilt. He spent the morning as a guest teacher of a law school class because he loves to teach and engage young people. After the class, he had brunch with his wife and two sons. Then all four of them spent the afternoon volunteering at the Nashville Food Project, the community food bank. He capped off his birthday by going to listen to a country music performance at the local Bluebird Caf?, followed by a birthday dinner not only with his wife and sons, but his son’s roommates as well. He told me it was a “Great Day”.

Robert’s birthday celebration made me think about the relationship between what we “receive and give” in life — one of the defining qualities of our character.

We can “receive in order to receive.” This is appropriate for babies and very young children with open mouths larger than their bodies. This is how we act at our most egotistic, when we are so needy, so insatiable that nothing and no one else matters. Our immediate and end-goal are one and the same: to get.

A second way is how most people operate. We “give in order to receive.” This is conventional morality. I do my colleague a favor so he will put in a good word for me with someone of influence. I give my neighbor a holiday present each year so he’ll continue to keep an eye on my house when I’m out of town. “Giving in order to receive” makes the world livable.

The third way is when we “give in order to give.” This is generally considered the highest level of morality — what we think of when we think of altruism. “To give in order to give” is surely praiseworthy and idealistic, but it is has a feeling of saintliness that may be a denial of our humanness. The need to receive is an essential quality of the human experience and without receiving from other people and from life itself — be it our breath, rain, sunshine, food, health, money, or love — we would die.

But as I thought about Robert’s birthday celebration, it struck me there may be a deeper way to interact with others and with life.?Perhaps it is “to receive in order to give.”

So often we think we actually earn — that we deserve — what we have. But the most important things in our life — where we happen to be born, the parents we were given, the love of our life, the birth of our children, the talents we get to develop, the mentors and teachers who help us succeed, our life itself — we receive either by, well you can choose: luck, good fortune, providence or the flow of the universe. Could the wisest way to lead life be to see that we receive these unearned gifts in order to be able to give?

Happy Birthday Robert!

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