There were some civilizations before our own, such as some Native American civilizations, that were founded on the “economy of gift” rather than the economy of the market exchange. For example,
the Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away. As it is passed along, the gift may be given back to the original donor, but this is not essential…. The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going. [Hyde, Lewis. The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. 4, quoted in (Needleman, 1991, pp. 230-231)]
For some reason, in therapy today, I meandered off onto talking about past relationships where I did a lot of giving. Not pathological martyrdom, but giving in a way that felt totally natural and right. I don’t usually like to say a lot about them (except maybe to a few friends) because a lot of people react like either (1) I’m a saint (which isn’t true and is missing the point), or (2) I’m pretentiously angling for sainthood. But there is a pattern in my life where, at certain times when I’m ready and needing to give, someone comes into my life needing exactly what I have to offer. There was my friend who died of AIDS and the central role I played in his final year and a half. Then a couple years later, a suicidally depressed adolescent entered my life, and I came to spend time with her every week for 6 years, trying to slowly give herself back to her. Then a few years after she no longer needed me in that capacity, a friend (who was to become my housemate) landed on my doorstep with her health, career, and love life unravelling out from underneath her, and I took her in for 2 years and helped her create a space in which to heal and redefine herself.
I don’t want to feign humility by pretending I don’t know what a huge commitment and investment I made in each of these people and what an impact I had in their lives. But I’m not actually concerned here about whether or not you think I’m generous. What I want you to know is how the role I got to play in these relationships fed me in some really deep way. These people gave me the opportunity to pass on to them what I feel so incredibly lucky to have been given in my life and, in doing so, I got to really learn and integrate that wisdom in myself.
What was I giving? It really boils down to unconditional love. I don’t know where I would be today if there hadn’t been a cadre of people there for me at key points in my life, allowing me to melt down, to stop fighting so hard to keep my head above water, and to just sink and find out that the bottom really leads down and through and out into another, freer way of living. On one hand, I suppose it’s a huge thing for me to offer someone because it’s a promise that I won’t change my mind about them, even when they show me their worst. On the other hand, it seems like something so small that costs me hardly anything at all, and the pay off is so big.
My therapist pointed out today what an interesting thing it is that a woman who so clearly has chosen not to have children would have such a need to give and would be so fed by it. She said, “Thank God you’ve got your pets. For the times in your life that you don’t have an outlet for that, they keep you sane. They’ll take all of the love you can give and then some.” Then I was reminded of what I wrote in my personals profile “That’s the damn frustrating part about being single: there’s no one I can incautiously dote on.” And that’s true. It seems like, if I had to choose, it’s more painful for me to not express love as fully as I can than it is for me to not feel a similar expression of love from others. (Not that the latter isn’t an issue for me. But finding and learning to receive that kind of active, free love from another is a-whole-nother project.)
So, I guess what I really want you to know about me is that there’s something about making a difference in a person’s life with whatever it is I have in abundance, even if it’s just brightening their day with an unsolicited compliment, that makes life brighter for me. It restores order in my universe. It’s the part of me that also drives by a total stranger and then, for some unexplainable reason, feels suddenly so overwhelmed with gratitude that they are in my world that I well up with tears. I don’t pick those moments. They just happen to me. And when they do, I thank God that I have an outlet for those energies, that there are people who are willing to receive whatever that thing is that happens to or through me and hold it respectfully. Otherwise I would go insane.