Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pondering Giving, Receiving, and the Burmese Way.

As summer turns into fall, I often sink into introspection, and over the last couple of weeks my mind has been contemplating giving and receiving.

Among the events that kept propelling me to this subject, was a conversation I had with Robin Rilette, when I visited her at home a week ago while she was nursing a painful broken foot. We got around to talking about how events in our lives sometimes force us to receive, for a change. Robin wrote on her blog:

"I'm learning that while it is "more blessed to give than to receive" it can sometimes be more challenging to receive than to give. It's necessary, however, to learn to receive gracefully, gratefully and without guilt. This honors and respects the giver."

In our visit, I had recounted to Robin the tale of my difficult lesson on receiving, following a devastating flood at my home in 2005. The entire basement of my home was wiped out along with many possessions. Having no flood insurance, I was on my own with this major loss.

Or so I thought.

In a matter of days, volunteers showed up at my house in rubber boots, shovels and buckets in hand, and toiled in awful conditions, nearly waist deep in mud and debris, clearing it out. About 70 people shoveled and hauled for four days, with tremendous esprit de corps. Donations of food, bedding, furniture and cash flowed in. People housed and fed us while the home was uninhabitable, and many gave me the gifts of their organizing skills and technical expertise.

Somehow I managed to stay cheerful through the clean-up phase of the flood, and held on to a good sense of humor. But when all the mud was gone, I paid a visit to my beloved parish priest, and wept my own personal flood of tears. It was not the loss that troubled me in the least, I told him - it was the outpouring of love and support from friends, strangers and my warm and loving community that humbled me....and was so hard to accept. I felt undeserving.

And Father Joe told me something which I will always consider a major milepost in my understanding. It is much harder to receive than it is to give, he said, but it was a lesson I had to learn: that overwhelmed as I was by care of the good people, it was a mere taste of the love God has for us all.

So powerful was that message, I had a physical reaction - a jolt in my chest.

The subject of giving and receiving continues to assert itself in my life. Today, it came in a BBC article on the Burmese monks at the center of the current crisis in Burma (I will use the old form of the name in this post - it is the name I grew up using, so will run with the familiar.)

In Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, parts of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism prevails. It is common for every male to be a monk at some point in his life. Even career men will take one week a year to live the ascetic life of mendicant, donning monk's robes and carrying a begging bowl - his only possessions. He will depend on the charity of civilians for his daily meals.

From the BBC article:

"They give religious guidance and perform important duties at weddings and funerals.

"In return for these duties, they are given donations by laymen. As they are forbidden from handling cash, they are completely reliant on these handouts. Each full moon day, they are also given donations such as robes.

"If they refuse these handouts, they are denying the donor the potential to earn spiritual "credit" - the strongest possible penalty that can be expected from a Buddhist."

What a beautiful thing it is, I thought, to have giving and receiving woven tightly into one's cultural consciousness, and then be aware, daily, of the spiritual need and reward of giving and receiving. Yet this creed is playing into the current situation:

Myint Swe of the BBC Burmese service said the announcement by the monks currently protesting in Burma that they would refuse all donations from the ruling military (most of whom would be Buddhist themselves) was so powerful, because "the government wants the image that they are pious and helping the monks."

(Matt Frei of the BBC wrote a great piece on the Burmese people's lot, and on the grace and courage of Aung San Suu Kyi - read it here.)

But here in the US of A, why is it so hard for many of us to receive?

Back in the day, people HAD to receive in order to survive. Think of the Amish coming together for barn raising. All sorts of agrarian societies in communal plowing, sowing and harvesting. Villages communally raising children.

Has life in modern Western societies removed us so far from this, that many think of receiving as a sort of weakness, a loss of independence - or an obligation to reciprocate? Is this the result of some religious teachings, which stress the virtue of giving - but less conspicuously, on the virtue of receiving? Or could this be tied to self-esteem?

Whatever the reason, I say, from personal experience: give - a smile, a greeting, a helping hand, or something material. But also open up and receive - a compliment, a greeting, a gift, a friendship. Then give in turn once more.

It's a deeply gratifying cycle.