Recently, I was under the weather, and found myself in need of some external help. Some wonderful, sympathetic friends in my town took on the tasks of sending me family meals on days that I was too tired, and to pick up my daughter from school.
This warmth and assistance was invaluable to me. I was truly moved.
But on another level, my emotional response to these gifts disturbed me. I felt strangely burdened. My mind started rattling off ways that I could “repay” these “favors.” I tried hard to STOP calling people for help – even when they’d urged me to call and not to hesitate. I started, in effect, holding up my hand, drawing boundaries, putting up fences — which, we all know, make pretty terrible neighbors.
This made me question myself. When did I become this person who was unable to ‘take’ what was freely and lovingly given? When did I develop such a cold distant sense of self and other? When did I cut myself off from others?
On such days, I found myself missing a distant time in my (relative) youth, when I would show up sick and feverish at a friend’s house, fall asleep on her couch, wake up to a cup of tea and then lunch, fall asleep again, and wake up to snacks and desultory chat. The idea that my friend/s would find me burdensome did not cross my mind. The exchange had already happened emotionally, and that the giving and receiving was merely an outward thing, nothing that had to be earth-shattering. Invaluable, deeply appreciated, thankfully welcomed, yes. But not a disaster for my sense of personal security. Nothing that affected my independence. Nothing that broke my pride.
It is an uncomfortable thing, this fenced-in selfhood. It is frozen, unable to bend, incapable of flexibility, illiterate in the art of freely accepting. This selfhood is crippled when it is forced to take. “What do I have to do to deserve this? Why are they doing this for me? Will they weary of my need? When I am not able to serve them, but have to accept service, will this disadvantage me socially? Will it put me in a position of emotional dependence, and then what if I am abandoned?” …
Many years of rootless wandering from continent to continent, community to community, do make you feel like you don’t belong – anywhere. Anywhere you go, you have to invest time to develop those solid relationships where giving and receiving are almost the same thing. When you’re done investing time in one place, you move, and start over. You remain somewhat of a stranger.
And then, when you feel like you are a stranger, you start making others into strangers.
I think that during my recent visits to Lahore, my family might have found my habit of saying “thank you, ammi” and “thank you, Svend” to be oddly exotic. Now, it may sound like I was raised ill-mannered, but we did not say ‘thank you’ in my family. We just did things for each other. ‘Thank you’ wasn’t necessary, or expected. ‘Thank you’ was a little bit of fence. Of course ‘thank you’ is a wonderful thing, and it sends out the aroma of warmth and appreciation even into long-standing relationships, and awakens them out of stagnancy. But in some cases, ‘thank you’ doesn’t occur – not because we don’t appreciate, but because the boundaries between self and other are not marked out so very darkly. Do I thank you for being in my heart? Do I thank you for being, in many ways, an integral part of me and my life? How do I set you apart, and then thank you?
In the early centuries of Islamic Sufism, we find numerous stories of Sufis whose shaikhs put them through a period of rigorous training, which included service to others and the performance of low-status work. Often, they were commanded to take up their begging bowls and to beg for scraps in the streets. Culturally, today, the pride that closes us off from asking or receiving is billed as an entirely positive thing. But in the spiritual traditions, the ability to erase pride – indeed selfhood – is praiseworthy. The Prophet described a mustard seed worth of pride as blameworthy. “What is a mustard seed worth of pride?” my shaikh asked me. “It is selfhood.” Naturally. this is not about greed for others’ possessions. Acquisitiveness is the opposite of this lack of pride.
I am trying to re-learn to take, but this is a difficult degree to obtain. The mastery of this art is a form of surrender. It is vulnerability, and yet it is emotional strength that is not shaken by give and take. I’m hoping I can regain that strength that I have somewhat lost along the way.