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Giving and Receiving: Tension or Paradox?

If you’ve not yet stepped into a caregiving role, you may not have touched on the great challenge of giving/receiving care. Marjorie Thompson prepares our hearts.


Giving and Receiving: Tension or Paradox?

By Marjorie Thompson

My husband and I cared for his mother, Bab, in our home over the course of eleven years. Looking back, my early ideas about giving and receiving were mostly “either/or.” Either I was in Bab’s apartment offering help, or she was cooking supper for us that evening. I saw the mutuality of our relationship in discreet chunks. Because many more chunks of time and effort were my gifts to her, I felt burdened, drained, and frustrated by “giving more than I received.”

With time, I sensed more flow between giving and receiving. I had experienced my mother-in-law as emotionally distant through most of my married life. She stiffened when we embraced her and blew her kisses from across the room. Yet as I came to understand more of how her father’s harshness had affected her, my heart softened. I started giving Bab a ritual “goodnight kiss” on the cheek, with words of love. She was surprised and pleased. Before long Bab was reciprocating signs of affection—with a gentle hand on my arm or a heartfelt “Thank you.” The feeling of mutuality was more immediate as my expressions of affection elicited hers. Each expression was still a discreet moment, moving first one way then the other. But now the balance was greater between what I gave and what I received. I felt less drained as I was offered some emotional nurture in the process of caregiving.

How often we talk about finding healthy balance between caring for others and caring for ourselves! Balance implies that we live in tension between competing claims on our time and energy. The tensions lie at opposite ends of a spectrum, like seats on a seesaw. Caring for another person takes time away from care we could give ourselves. Work commitments take us away from time needed for family commitments. The demands of the outer life interfere with time to cultivate the inner life. Because we see these needs in tension with each other, we ask how to hold them in balance. Henri Nouwen, one of my spiritual mentors, insisted that mutuality lies at the heart of every caring relationship. I’ve been pondering how we see the connection between giving and receiving, especially in caregiving.

Perhaps there is a third way to think of giving and receiving, which may be the most helpful. St. Francis’ beloved prayer is written in the form of paradox: “It is in giving that we receive.” The prayer is so familiar we may not catch how differently it states the relationship. This is not one motion followed by another: First we give, then we receive. Rather it is in the very act of giving that we simultaneously receive.

Toward the end of Bab’s life, our relationship shifted in remarkable ways. When I dried her body after a shower and smoothed cream on her fragile skin, we shared the gift of intimate care. She gave me opportunity to offer care, and received my offering with gifts of ease and gratitude. We could erupt in hilarious giggles over simple things. We had come to love each other, something I could not have imagined a few years earlier. In the giving, I received. In her receiving, she gave.

Henri Nouwen writes about this experience among people who “serve the poor.” They often imagine they are the ones giving time and gifts to people in need; yet discover that “in the smiles of the children, the hospitality of the people; … the stories they tell, the wisdom they show, the goods they share; there is hidden so much richness and beauty, so much affection and human warmth, that the work they are doing is only a small return for what they have already received.” Henri calls this “creative reciprocity,”* a phrase that poetically describes paradox.

Paradox holds the apparent opposites of giving and receiving together in a unified whole. Imagine how embracing this paradox could change how we experience our care relationships.

Marjorie J. Thompson is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. She has served as a teacher, writer, and retreat leader for more than thirty years. Henri J. M. Nouwen was one of her early spiritual mentors and personal friend of her husband, John Mogabgab, who served as Henri's teaching and research assistant for five years at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Courage for Caregivers: Sustenance for the Journey in Company with Henri J. M. Nouwen.

* See Henri J. M. Nouwen, You Are the Beloved (Convergent Books, 2017), 213.


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