You Can Only Give What You Have

We’ve all heard “you only get what you give” crooned in song lyrics and tossed about in new age seminars sailing through the lips of “gurus,” using guilt-inducing finger-pointing tactics as the path to enlightenment.

I say poppycock.

Why do I take issue with the sentiment? Three reasons. 1) People often get more than they give, bargain for, or even want for that matter. 2) It’s manipulative, and most importantly, 3) You can only give what you have.

I understand the point, and it’s a good one — it’s almost the Golden Rule in different speak. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; give what you want to get. The sentiment strikes me differently, though.

The definition of manipulation is doing something to serve one’s own purpose. Authenticity lacks. It’s called having an agenda, and people can feel it. I did this for you; what are you going to do for me? Often it’s not even conscious.

How many times have you received the vitriol of others for no reason other than they wanted to discharge their discomfort? You didn’t give anybody anything; you were just minding your own business. And how many times have you done that to others?

There have been times in my life when people have given to me beyond my own capacity to give to them or to provide for myself, well beyond what I felt I deserved or could have ever imagined. In those instances, their actions taught me to be better. Their demonstration of kindness showed me a different way. They had something to give that I didn’t have, they gave it to me freely, and I grew as a result.

If you don’t have something, you can’t give it. You can’t make someone dinner if your kitchen is bare. You can’t give someone water if your well is dry, and if you are short on compassion or empathy, you won’t be able to witness another in their suffering, empathize with their pain and simply hold their hand and quietly be with them.

You only get what you give. Poppycock. When a child is raised in a dysfunctional home, and let’s face it, aren’t all homes in some way or another?… No matter how a mother treats her children, they will want to please her. The mother will get love from the child even if she treats them poorly. She’s not giving love, but she’s getting it. The father gets attention even if he ignores them. He’s not giving attention, but he’s getting it. The child has to get its needs met, which sometimes requires giving love, stifling feelings, and losing its authentic self no matter what it’s receiving. That adaptive behavior becomes ingrained; it doesn’t just go away as children become adults. It echoes fear, anger, and ways of being into the future that people wish they could change.

You can only give what you have is a call to action.

A call to practice mindfulness, pay attention to the ripples of your actions and cultivate tools for your inner toolbox, the set of qualities and strengths that you draw upon to live. If you’re not getting the outcomes you want, it’s a good idea to look within; see what’s missing from your approach, and practice those qualities consciously. Over and over. Again and again.

In my estimation, there’s a prequel to the Golden Rule, and that’s do unto yourself the way you would have others do unto you. Treat yourself with kindness, love, compassion, and care, and you will naturally begin treating others that way. At that point, when you have firm boundaries regarding your own needs, you’ll have more to give; authentically.

Life is endless practice. Gather those tools.

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