“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller observed when he weighed the delicate balance of giving and receiving. A demand is a metastasis of longing. Because longing is the defining feature of human life, learning to bear our longing without demanding is the beginning of healing.
Nothing is more salutary to the soul than that which comes unbidden and is received freely. And yet, paradoxically enough, it is in receiving that we most often trip up — for to receive is an act of tremendous trust and tremendous vulnerability. True gratitude has as its object not what is given but what is received. The art of receiving is therefore the precursor to any sense of gratitude — our deepest wellspring of thanks-giving.
That is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores in one of the myriad dazzling passages that strew The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his uncommonly insightful meditation on how to think better and see the pattern beneath the particulars.
With an eye to a friend so skillful at receiving that “everyone felt good” in giving to him — “a present, a thought, anything” — Steinbeck writes:
Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing. One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.
It is a countercultural notion, this indictment of the greed of generosity, especially in our culture of virtue-signaling and performative giving. But only by acknowledging this particular form of selfing can we begin to appreciate the beauty of its mirror-image in the art of receiving — an art truer and more tender, for it requires not an exercise of the ego but its exorcism.
It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.
It requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez remains one of the finest things I have ever read. Complement this fragment with Seneca on gratitude and what it really means to be a generous human being, then revisit Steinbeck on love, the necessary contradictions of human nature, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about what it means to be a writer.