Many television seasons ago, one of the main characters in "Chicago Hope" had a near-death experience during surgery. While he was recovering, he confided to a friend that he had learned the secret of life. It was "giving and receiving."
Giving? Yes, we get that. But receiving the love, care, and help of others? That's more difficult for many of us. One explanation could be the reigning mythology of Western culture: It's good to stand on our own two feet and never be dependent. As Protestant preacher William Sloane Coffin once put it: "Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially the capacity to be vulnerable."
Even if we acknowledge how much we rely on others in our everyday activities, we may still hesitate to be on the receiving end when we are in trouble. We do not want to be a burden, we say. We can take care of ourselves. This attitude means that often the weakest and neediest among us don't ask for help or resist it when it is offered.
This philosophy comes across in A Home of Our Own, a 1993 film starring Kathy Bates as Frances, a strong-willed single mother of six. After leaving California, they settle down in a shack on a hill in Idaho. Instead of paying rent, the kids do chores for the landlord. Frances works at a bowling alley as a waitress. A priest from the Catholic church offers the family clothes and other items they desperately need, but Frances refuses. This stubbornness draws out the ire of her eldest son who resents being the man of the house. It takes a family tragedy to open Frances' eyes to the fact that it's no sin to accept help. The message of this movie is that receiving graciously is as important as giving.
Our reluctance to freely receive affects our relationships with others and limits our openness to God's grace. Getting better at receiving, then, is an important intention of spiritual practice. Here are a few ways to do this:
• Make a practice of consciously acknowledging your vulnerability and dependence upon others. For example, think about all the service providers who make it possible for us to ride in elevators, make phone calls, read a book at night in a lighted room, and have food or supplies delivered. Too often, we take this support for granted.
• During a meal, choose one food item and try to list all the people who helped bring it to your table the farmers, truckers, store managers, package makers, and even those who created the map that facilitated its movement from one place to your table. When you say grace, include a blessing for all those you depend on.
• Make a habit of acknowledging one free gift you have received at the end of each day. Then thank God for the presence in your life of the bearer of the gift.
• Take compliments and words of encouragement gracefully. Resist any temptation to downplay or minimize positive things people say about you with phrases like "Oh, it was nothing." Think about what it says to others and to God if you are always insisting that you are unworthy of their love.