Yesterday, I cooked a double batch of pasta sauce and took it to a local friend who has just welcomed a baby.
It was such a joy to help out in this tangible sort of way – and it was interesting getting to be on the giving side, since for the past few years I was so much more often on the receiving side.
During pregnancy, after childbirth, and then during cancer treatment, there were so many times when people came through for me, showing unbelievable kindness in ways large and small.
I was endlessly grateful for this, but there was also a part of me that felt guilty. Because I was aware that things aren’t equal – that people were doing more for me than I could do for them in return.
But as I set the dinner on the doorstep and walked away, I realised: gratitude is enough.
Sometimes we have a feeling that we shouldn’t accept any favours that we wouldn’t be able to repay to others. And it’s true that reciprocity is at the foundation of human relationships.
But reciprocity doesn’t have to mean doing the same thing. It can just mean offering something else in return – and gratitude is a precious offering all its own.
During my lowest moments, I would sit and weep, thinking about the burden I was placing on others and asking myself ‘how am I ever going to repay this’, knowing it would be impossible.
Generosity becomes an act so much bigger than us. It feels like it flows through the universe like an invisible force. I wasn’t able to do nice things specifically for the people who helped me, certainly not to the degree that they offered support. It’s not that obvious or direct a system of exchange. But I am now in a position to be able to pay it forward.
I know that the mum I did this small act of kindness for will in turn find a way to pay it forward to someone else.
And even if she doesn’t, that’s okay.
Because in the act of giving, and expressing appreciation, the cycle is complete.
It makes me sad to think of how many times I short-circuited this process. Because guilt gets in the way of gratitude. When we are measuring up, comparing contributions, or worrying about what we will need to do in the future, it creates a strange kind of debt that might not exist otherwise.
Because we can’t be thankful in a way that gives giving a conclusion, it feels like it remains open and hanging, both for the giver and the receiver. The receiver is too lost in their anxiety to connect with real thankfulness. And the giver can wind up absorbing some of this anxiety, feeling like maybe there is an unpaid debt, or even feeling bad that they triggered this cycle in the person they were trying to help.
It’s hard to be gracious when we are feeling vulnerable. When we most need help can be the trickiest time to accept it with warmth and happiness.
It has been so empowering to feel self-sufficient in a way that was not available to me during my treatment. But I know that times will come again when I need to lean on others more than I do now.
I hope when that time comes, I can remember what a gift it feels like to receive someone else’s gratitude, or simply to know that one’s own small action is making the world a better place.