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The Art of Receiving

Accepting the gifts of life

It took getting breast cancer for my friend Alison to overcome the discomfort of asking for and receiving help, and learn how to give. “When I was diagnosed with cancer,” Alison, a marketing manager at a San Francisco media company, says, “I did not have a husband or family to help me. So I had to ask for help from my friends to get through surgery and treatment. I couldn’t even lift my arm to get salt from the cupboard. I had never had to ask for help from people at this level before and it was very uncomfortable. It was something about the attention being on me and also about the fear of being disappointed. By not asking, there was no risk of disappointment. This experience made me think about all the times I had not helped my friends, thinking they would ask for help if they really needed it. But the truth is, it is very hard to ask and receive. And I learned that we have to look out for each other.”

Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist and author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, believes receiving is necessary for an enriching life, even when what we receive is painful. “Life is a gift we receive each day,” she says. “But the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we’re closed, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life.”

Psychological health depends on receiving, and so does physical health, according to Mary Saunders, a practitioner of Chinese medicine for more than 20 years. Saunders founded the low-cost Community Acupuncture Clinic in Boulder, Colorado. “Chinese medicine is about relationship,” Saunders explains. “And the most fundamental relationship is between heaven, Earth and man. Man has a responsibility to keep heaven and Earth in balance.” In Chinese medicine, heaven is related to giving, expressing and achieving; Earth is related to giving, stillness and waiting.

Most of Saunders’ clients have lived way too long with an imbalance. Myriad disorders result—including headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain, exhaustion, allergies, anxiety, severe menstrual cramps, digestive problems. “Health and creativity require equal measures of both giving and receiving,” Saunders says. “How can we really give to life if we haven’t received from life? Giving without receiving, doing without regenerating, is like burning the candle at both ends.”

According to Saunders, we receive during the evening, after the stimulating and draining workday is over. At night, she suggests, we “should rest, listen to our families, take a quiet walk in nature. But instead, we fit in a trip to the gym or our volunteer work.” Seasonally, during fall and winter—times of hibernation—we need to honor and value our receptivity, she says. “We dial down the activity a notch, spend more time indoors, by a fire, cooking, talking.”

But these times of seeming inaction terrify those who are focused on outer indications of success and achievement. At the core of our resistance to receiving, Saunders believes, is a terror of the unknown. “In our culture, we have no relationship with not-knowing. But not-knowing is the ­essence of receiving.”

During this quiet and inward holiday season, when many of us are engaged so deeply in giving, can we redeem ­receiving from its murky psychological associations with weakness and neediness? Can we offer it a more enriching place in our lives and help bring balance back into the world? Where do we start? With not ­knowing, as Saunders suggests. Or, as Harvard’s Langer puts it, “We can’t receive if we think we know everything.”

It makes sense. So I put away my ­preconceptions and tried on the scarf my mother gave me. I was surprised to see it looked good. “Hmm,” Langer said when I told her. “Maybe your mother knows something about you and pink.”

More Related:
Relax and Be Joyful for the Holidays
5 Easy Ways to Slow Down

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.


+ add your own
10:48AM PDT on Mar 13, 2011

Good article.

10:02PM PST on Dec 28, 2010


12:50PM PST on Dec 28, 2010

Carole, maybe the gift was never meant for you but for someone else. In that case, bless someone else with it.

5:20AM PST on Dec 28, 2010

an unexpected gift, no matter how innapropriate, is a joy to receive. However, I do feel hurt by gifts from family and friends that show little or no thought for my needs or preferences.

5:50PM PST on Dec 27, 2010

good post.

5:20PM PST on Dec 27, 2010

Giving presents at certain times of the year like Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving etc. is commercially driven. Nothing worse then receiving a present that one has no use for and eventually it ends up in landfill while the companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

8:22AM PST on Dec 27, 2010

Every Christmas, I am the recipient of a small pile of artificially scented, paraben filled, pthalate laden products. I try to put in in my mind to thank the giver for the generosity of the gift, not the content of the package (or the product). If you keep this in your mind as you thank them, your appreciation will come from the heart. Now if I could trick for the guilt I feel when I sell these items for 50 cents at a garage sale...

8:15AM PST on Dec 27, 2010

When I was a young man I was told by a very wise man and friend who was much older than I. Always accept a gift gracesouly and say thanks even if you hate it. you may always get rid of it later but you can never undo the harm of insulting a person that thought enough of you to give you a gift. and Always call a married woman by her last name Mrs, Miller or what ever it is unless the husband is present out of respect for her marrage. Things do get blured in the work place but in a public gathering of mixed people I still belive this is correct.

8:55PM PST on Dec 26, 2010

Good article... Thanks for posting. :D

7:34PM PST on Dec 26, 2010

Unless the gift in question is something that the giver had to KNOW you dislike, accept it graciously, for the thought that the giver was thinking of you, and wanted t please you. And sometimes, these objects do grow on you.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

people are talking

Figures. People "of color" tend to be less educated, and thus more gullible to such propaganda.

Good Afternoon and thank you for this article -it was informative - We should boycott all of these …

Tourist at home? This reminds me of a very funny Czech cartoon from the 1980's...

Nice. Some other good advice- eat organic and practice handwashing. Thanks.


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