The gift of reciprocity, part one.
Today was an exquisite day of practice and privilege with some truly remarkable gifts of leadership.
One of the central themes I’m drawing from my journey through its recent forests and high mountain passes is the theme of reciprocity.
For most of my life, I was never great at receiving. I could take something, in agency, but even that – as it involved receiving that which was taken – was always a bit awkward. I’ve always been better at giving.
Ironically, my earliest memory (thus far) is that of being an infant feeding at the breast. I remember the warm soft feeling against my face, and the sense of calm fullness as the familiar nutrient flowed into my being. So I’m not without a starting place – the first thing I know is receiving. I’ve got that to build on, and it’s something.
Otherwise, in the earliest moments of my life, I was quickly learning some sense of agency, a reaction to the discomfort and confusion of my parents as they struggled to navigate their tenuous relationship which would last just four more years before it would collapse into a froth of separation, anger, and hurt. In the context of that volatile space, I’m pretty sure I felt very little room to relax into receiving what was present, moving directly instead towards agency in my own body to “address” my condition.
That preference for agency over receptivity persisted and began to show symptoms that I can recall as I moved into fourth grade. I couldn’t quite figure out how to be in social reciprocity with the other kids. I had a few friendships, but at school where the numbers were larger, I quickly found myself a member of the outcast cast. This social awkwardness would persist as I learned to first protect my body, and later my ego through bullying and other insensitivities arising from an absence of the necessary receptive intelligence to create good bonds.
This was person-to-person receptivity, and without it, I never quite became a member of any concrete collective, like a church, or other place where people gather around shared inquiry or curiosity. Instead, I became kind of an awkward loner – a default member of the broken hearts club. We could identify with something more abstract, like peace and freedom, but we could not join.
As I said, I had agency, and could give freely and generously. By early high school, one of my favorite gifts for friends on their birthday, was simply to put my paycheck in my pocket and hang out with them, paying for whatever we did, drinks, movies, what have you. As you might imagine, I had no concept of saving any of that money, let alone spending it wisely. (Notice that wind spending is in fact a kind of receptivity as wise spending is invariably an investment in something we will retain.)
Later, after failing to receive much of an education – in contexts where the learning was much larger than one-on-one, my ability to actively engage ceased to be an advantage, and I would drop off quickly – generally a “C student”. In small groups, one-on-one, or on my own, I’ve always been a fairly agile learner, leading with my agency; but as many teachers will tell you I could be very difficult when it came time to receive guidance from them.
Eventually I dropped out of high school. It would be many years before I even considered the idea of “joining” college or university. “Receiving” higher education never really landed for me. In that way, I just backed myself up into being an autodidact such as I am. This anemic capacity to receive patterns of thought, intelligence, and ideas – formal education – kept me well away from that path for many years indeed.
I was active though! I thought long and hard about all things great and small. I lived for my high ideals, even if I would regularly fail to back them up with a material integrity (which would’ve relied on a fluency of reciprocitive behavior.)
This essay could run long so I’m going to reign this in a little…
Challenges of developing a career in modern America without a formal education aside, it takes the reciprocitive discipline of behaving within the concrete structures of our institutions in order to thrive and grow in those contexts. No settling into a career for me…
Instead I continued to grow, as a member, with increasing seniority, of the “broken hearts club. 😉
Without the skill of reciprocity of behavior within any one of a number of well defined common structures – educational institution, club, organizational initiative, etc. I wafted through our social paths less trodden. I mixed with the artists, the escapists, the criminals and other miscreants, eventually landing with those closest to my heart, the spiritual seekers.
All of this is coming back around to the story of how, today, I find myself raw and broken, and facing with surrender, awe and curiosity the structures and nature of our collective economics.
In spiritual community, there has always been an implicit generosity. I would argue that this has to do with the foundational spirituality of the “divine” generosity that is the constantly renewing manifestation of “material” reality. In this niche container, I could practice to develop my skills of agency and activity while receiving only just enough for basic subsistence.
Still, when I earned a paycheck, it always flowed out like water as anything else would’ve required the capacity to invest in some received benefit. At least though I got to practice refining my capacity and skills with giving. Drawing, however, on the idea and construct so often found in spiritual contexts – that of “selflessness,” I was still missing the exploration of reciprocity.
Then catastrophe; paralysis and quadriplegia. Once again a babe, a new body, no capacity for agency as I tumbled into the bewildering state. The breast of the world, my loved ones and family came to my aid bringing nourishment which I was helpless to resist, and flowed into me, warming and nourishing my growing new being.
And then grace, windfall, a pool of resource beyond anything I had ever considered. As a small child I thought I would be a millionaire, but of course that was immature thinking, with no connected path to the necessary reciprocities that could bring that about. Now, after injury and a legal settlement, I had well more than that. I had run the numbers, I knew even though the sum was large, it would not last without some crucial creativity and good fortune. What I did not see at the time was the importance of reciprocity in that equation.
And so it was, an infinitely greater capacity to exercise agency and generosity. Every day was a birthday, and everyone – truly sincerely – my beloved friends. This was a spiritual ecstasy as I could continue to surrender into the joys of a deeper and deeper selflessness, and could express compassion in the form of care, in every way I could discover, for those around me.
I invested generously, not realizing that true investment grows from a reciprocitive intelligence and produces more abundance for the whole as long as it can circulate its intelligence, novelty, and wisdom throughout. Investment is never just giving freely without truly recognizing that there is no way to give, except when one sees that giver, given, and receiver, are truly and meaningfully one. Everything else is just throwing away.
Very few of my investments returned anything of substance, save for the education I received by my active curiosity in the process. Even those profits that did result from “investments” gone well, were most often spilled away in some ancillary or connected benefit to the periphery. No reciprocity, no integrative expanse.
And so it was in the early days of 2019 that I began to realize that it was not just dumb luck that had kept me from growing wealth in a material and holistic sense (of course there are many ways in which I am vastly more wealthy today than on some day before), but something missing, nothing so mundane as accounting or strategy, creativity, or courage, but something more.
I realized this because the last effort I had made, efforts in fact, to build abundance and a generosity that would spring forth from within itself, growing its own capacity for greater wealth, had all crumbled for reasons invisible to me.
These efforts were not efforts of initiative, some context where by my own strength, courage, and commitment, success would be won. These were efforts that would require the skill – though I would not realize this just yet – and capacity of reciprocity. These efforts were initiatives to build value through the vehicle of community. My many years in the school of broken hearts had taught me, that we all have broken hearts. Gradually, over time, over decades, I began to see myself more a part of the community of humanity.
This was something to which I could belong, something material and tangible, yet abstract enough as not to upset my nascent capacities to receive. Certainly the reciprocity we each experience as a member of that great family, is so subtle it is easy to overlook.
But I digress. The first failure – and I’m only just realizing this as these words hit the page – that would begin to tip my awareness towards this realization of an absent muscle of reciprocity (grounded in the absence of receptivity) was that one on one initiative I took on in raising my daughter through her first round of double digits. [Don’t you just love my use of run-on sentences? ;-)]
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any regrets there – I did a really good job serving that young being. In agency and generosity I gave excellence in exemplifying and modeling kindness, care, structure, and more. I gave love and resource and education and support for those that mattered to her. When I did not do, and she told me this in no uncertain terms just weeks before she was fledged into the world, was receive the depth of input that she could bring to our dance.
By real means of grace and good fortune, I was able to give her many things, not just of material, but of soul and heart value to a person. Those many years of ideological aspiration, and the exceptional beings I was fortunate to have surrounded myself with, ensured that I gave almost exclusively healthy nutrients to her body mind and soul. But it was a one-man show, and I the lone dictator. As much as I inquired, and I did, I never realized its absence but I was not able to create for her a space where she could feel her full agency in reciprocity in our dance of raising a child.
As I say, that was the first bump to get my attention. I didn’t realize it until this evening, but that separation, when she set off on her own into the world, a journey I thought we would take in dialogue with one another but ended up finding only the back of her head, that was the first moment to unsettle my attention to allow me to discover eventually this missing link.
She is well, and I think happy in her place in the world. She is competent and capable and living a beautiful life with learning and service and partners. She did an excellent job of developing her own practice of reciprocity, in spite of me. I can see many of the gifts that I gave her alive and well in her being, even from my vantage point now literally halfway around the world. I am confident in the love we share, and look forward to our friendship in the days ahead when I have mastered this newly discovered object of incapacity.
These words run long, and the hour runs late so I’m going to close this for now. This is part one however, I’m excited to be telling the story, and as you can see, to be learning from it in real time. One day soon, perhaps tomorrow I will finish the journey.
Today was an exquisite day of practice and privilege with some truly remarkable gifts along the way…
God gets to know things, we just get to ask questions…