Wednesday, 31 August 2011

It is in giving that we receive: a paradox

“Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is giving to all man that we receive. And in dying that we are born to eternal life”

I love these words from the prayer of St Francis. By the way they are not words that he ever uttered himself, although they are certainly inspired by his life and his message. The prayer, of which there are many versions, first appeared a little over a hundred years ago in France. It is the line “It is in giving to all man that we receive” or the slightly shorter version “It is in giving that we receive,” that really speaks to me. The emphasis here is ever so slightly different to the words from Acts 20 v 35 “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (King James version).

“It is in giving that we receive”. This is the magic moment, in the very act of giving of ourselves to others that we truly receive all that we could ever possibly wish for. It is the most beautiful of paradoxes. Granted it probably does not make logical sense and yet in my experience it is utterly true.

The world’s religious traditions are no stranger to paradox. Taoism is full, or do I mean empty, of them. Here is one example:

Fullness and emptiness give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short shape each other.
Tones and voice harmonize with each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore wherever the sage is, he dwells among affairs by not doing.
He teaches without words.
The ten-thousand things arise, but he doesn’t impel them.
He gives birth, but he doesn’t possess.
He acts, but he doesn’t rely on what he has done.
He has successes, but he doesn’t claim credit.
So by not claiming credit, he is never empty.

The teachings of Jesus are firmly grounded in paradox. He said “the first shall be last”; “empty yourself and be filled”; “lose yourself and be found”. The epistle Paul wrote “As dying, and, behold, we live”; he said of his fellow Christians “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”; and he said of himself “When I am weak, then I am strong”

Aristotle saw this as absolute twaddle of course. He is the great grandfather of scientific methodology, of all who pride themselves on their critical faculties and all who claim rationality. He talked of the law of the excluded middle. Put simply something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time. How can anyone argue with such logic? We cannot be rich if we are poor; we cannot be first if we are last; we cannot experience joy if our lives are full of sorrow. Can we? Surely we cannot, it just does not make sense. How on earth can we receive when we are giving? It does not seem to make sense, when we think logically.

Of course a paradox does not make sense in a purely logical sense, but to expect it to do so is to fail to understand its purpose. It is the tool that broadens the framework in which we see reality. It stretches the boundaries of truth. Through our imaginations we push truth past its seeming limits. Without imagination, without foresight we would probably never have come down from the trees, or out of the caves. A paradox cannot be solved by conventional truths, it requires unconventional truths. It stretches common sense to the point where it becomes uncommon sense and thus moves our experiences of life forward. It challenges the status quo and the understanding of any given time. This is of course what the great religious sages did; they brought new understanding to their time and place.

Our lives are riddled with paradoxes. How often have we heard the following statements? “I am surrounded by people and yet I am lonely” “My life is so full of choices, that I can’t make a decision about anything” or on the more optimistic end of the scale “I am skint and yet I am happy” or “I have so much, because I have so little”

The wisdom of paradox challenges our desire for certainty and perfection. The only thing that I know for certain is that my body will not last forever. We humans though do not like to believe this we like to think that we are all powerful and all knowable. We homo-sapiens may well be wise men, but we are not God. The book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, which was based around the authors work with alcoholics (something I personal experience of) recognises that our attempts to achieve perfection have been our most tragic mistake. It highlights that one of the central theme of the spiritual traditions is the insistence that honesty, particularly honesty with self about self, is an essential requirement for any religious quest; that the greatest and most insidious dishonesty is to deny or refuse to accept our mixed human nature. We are not saints, nor are we sinners. We possess qualities of great goodness as well as the capacity to do great evil within us.

I suspect that many of the troubles of modern living are a direct result of our demands for perfection not only from ourselves but others too. We do not have to be perfectly self actualised human beings. We do not have to surmount every obstacle alone. We need one another. Most of my spiritual experiences have been in those moments when I have given of myself to others, without the expectation of receiving anything in return; or when I have received wholeheartedly from others, when they have wanted nothing in return. You see the truth is that in these deeply religious acts, both are givers and both are receivers.

For much of my life, sadly, I could not allow this. It only began to happen following a complete breakdown and the discovery that I could no longer rely solely on my own resources and ingenuity. From there I was opened up and was able to truly ask for help and guess what, it was there. The help came from two very loving and open sources; one a little boy who had not yet learnt to guard against the pain that accompanies love and the other from people who had managed to rebuild their lives having been completely broken themselves.

I was reminded of this, once again, only last week. Ethan would have been 11 years old. On the day of his birthday I went to his grave with a card which I wrapped in cellophane and I remembered all he had given me, by just being himself. I saw his father on the way to the cemetery; he was pushing his lovely baby daughter along the road on his way home, she had a look of her brother. We stopped and we talked for a while and then we parted and went our separate ways.

Looking back at what happened all those years ago my one overpowering memory was the response of the community towards this family in the midst of tragedy. How they were held so lovingly.  They gave and they received, in the midst of terrible loss and agony.

Life can be so bittersweet at times. I have learned, through growing from my own brokenness and pain how much I need other people and how much I need God. I need that power that is greater than all, but present in each. I need to be in community with others to attain this. It will never take away the pain that is in life, but it certainly keeps me open to life’s joys.

I do not believe that it is better to give than to receive, because I have discovered that it is in the very act of giving that we all receive. In the end it turns out that the giver is in fact the receiver and the receiver is the giver.


  1. Love this. Please use "learned" not learnt

  2. Thank and thank you...tee, hee, hee!