06/16/2013 09:56 EDT | Updated 08/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Sometimes It's Easier To Give Than To Receive

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. Many people say that the size of the gift doesn't matter: "It's the thought that counts." I agree with that assessment. I'm not a "thing" person, and cherish the handmade card a friend sent me much more than the lovely vase that came with it. The vase holds flowers, but the card holds the love.

I just read a book about a woman who gave 29 gifts in 29 days. The gifts were made consciously, in order to help her focus on the blessings in her life rather than on the difficulties she faces. Giving helps the giver as much as (or even more than) the recipient, because the giver comes to understand the concepts of abundance and self-worth. It feels good to know that you have something to offer. It makes you look outside of yourself and expand your sense of perspective.

Receiving, however, is not always as simple. How many friends have turned down your offers of help, saying, "that's okay -- I can manage on my own"? Receiving gracefully is as important as giving. Accepting help doesn't mean we are weak or lacking; it just means it's our turn to be on the receiving end. Giving and receiving go together like yin and yang, neither more nor less important than the other.

My dear friend Carrie is considering a divorce. She calls me occasionally to talk through her fears, and to get my perspective. Today she called at the perfect time. We've been living in Denver for all of ten days. I don't know anyone here yet, and I sprained my ankle so I can't unpack or go exploring. The kids were in camp, David was at work, and I was completely alone and feeling...useless.

"Tell me something happy," she requested today after an hour of divorce-talk. "I don't want to be the friend who just calls to cry. I don't want to use you as a crutch."

"I'll be glad to tell you happy things," I replied, "but don't think it's not okay to call and cry. I am honoured that you choose me to call when you need advice. You make me feel like I have useful things to say, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to help. I should be thanking you." She assured me that I was indeed, helpful. I told her a few happy things, and we set a day to talk next week.

Who gave and who received? As you can see, each of us did both.

Sometimes a recipient has more visible opportunities to give back. My friend Tasha, for example, was a grateful recipient when she moved from New York to San Antonio, Texas. The transition wasn't easy, but a co-worker named April smoothed the way for her with smiles, patience, and useful information. Every extra effort she made for Tasha was a gift, which Tasha accepted gratefully.

Late last month, when flooding took San Antonio by surprise, April made an unfortunate mistake: She drove onto a street where water was beginning to rise. While she escaped any real danger, her car now requires major repairs that she cannot afford. When April told the story to her co-workers, no doubt she expected sympathy, or perhaps offers to help with transportation. Instead, the other women told her how stupid she was to drive onto a wet street, and some of them even laughed. Then they all returned to work as usual, leaving April bereft and humiliated at her station.

Quietly, Tasha pulled out her checkbook and wrote a check for $50, which was all she could afford to give. "I know this won't make a dent in your repair bill, but it's all I have right now. I'm so sorry for what happened to you." April smiled so wide, you would have thought Tasha had bought her a new car.

The gift Tasha offered was compassion. And compassion is priceless.

Everyone has something of value to give -- be it a smile, a bottle of water on a hot day, or a few minutes to mow a neighbour's grass. Let your dry cleaners know how much you appreciate their friendly service. Feed a stranger's empty meter, or let your husband rule the remote for the evening. Hold the elevator, or leave that prime parking space for the driver behind you. It doesn't take much to make a difference in someone's day.

Likewise, let others do things for you. How would Tasha have felt if April had not accepted her check? How would I feel if Carrie stopped calling me? Everyone deserves a chance to feel useful.

Some find it more difficult to give, and others to receive. Try doing both consciously and purposefully, and see how it changes your life.

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