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  • Writer's pictureTrisha Lord

Generosity & Reciprocity

Hot on the heels of May’s newsletter comes June’s – I want to get back on track to having the newsletter arrive on a month’s first Thursday.  And, as it happens, a topic very much on my mind in recent weeks is one I thought would be interesting to share and see what thoughts it might provoke for readers.


Funnily enough, as I pose those opening remarks, I am aware that my relationship with the people who read my newsletter is one of both generosity and reciprocity.  I am genuinely moved that people take the time to engage with what is provoking my awareness and thinking and I am so often deeply affected by the beautiful notes people send in response – an experience of reciprocity for which I am more than grateful.


Many of you know that Julia Makhubela and I have been delivering a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programme in Johannesburg for the last 18 months.  The work is shortly coming to an end.  It has been a humbling opportunity, a noteworthy learning journey, and a huge privilege.  One of the opening round questions we asked in that workshop was “what is a value you received from your family of origin as a child that has stayed with you and has become part of who you are?”. Although I answered that question afresh every time my turn came in the many rounds we have facilitated, it struck me over the duration of the programme that more often than not my answer was “generosity”.  My parents, both self-made people from extremely humble, working-class beginnings, were ‘generous to a fault’. 


That’s an interesting expression isn’t it?  It means that the person has this quality excessively.  But one word that showed up in my research was ‘indulgent’, and that struck a chord in terms of this topic and what has been on my mind about it. 


I think for the longest time now, possibly because of the early messages I received about ‘giving’ and ‘sharing’ from my parents, I’ve thought of real generosity as having to be with no expectation of return.  And I still do.  Generosity is not, should not – I believe – be transactional or quid pro quo.  I don’t really have any doubt about that.  And yet.  And yet there is something unhealthy that will happen if your experience of life is one of giving and not receiving.


So, if generosity, by definition, is a way of being in the world that does not count the cost, so to speak – then how do we make sure that our lives are balanced by the experience of reciprocity.  Simply put, we need a two-way street.  However, it is not as simple as it seems to generate one.


I’m going back to indulgence.  Recently, I have become, uncomfortably so, more aware of my inability to expect, or set up the conditions of reciprocity.  Precisely because of my definition of generosity having to be with no expectation of return, I seem to have missed the memo on boundaries.  My dear friend Deborah sent a thought provoking quote my way this last week.  It said:


‘Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.’  (Prentis Hemphill)


From doing just a little research on Prentis Hemphill thus far, I have already identified that they have much to teach me on boundary-setting, one of my life’s thornier issues, and a topic regular readers will have heard me reference many times before.


Prentis, a clinical psychologist and somatic practitioner, is the founder of The Embodiment Institute and has a podcast: Finding Our Way.  One of the questions they ask in their work is “how do we end harm?”


They have this to say in their introduction to their podcast: “the world we want cannot be realized without our own healing and transformation and that our own healing and transformation is really hard work.”


I am confounded by how hard it is to say when the experience of mutual exchange in a relationship is wobbly.  Arnold Mindell’s brilliant theory about what we experience when we are at ‘an edge’ talks of the ‘edge figures’ – characters who gather about in our inner narrative and, as Mary Oliver says start ‘shouting their bad advice’!  Faced with an experience where reciprocity is lacking and I want to say something about it, my edge figures are muttering about the need for generosity, for understanding of the other’s circumstances, and for the need to be compassionate.  What do I know, they demand to know, and besides can’t I see that it’s petty, selfish, small-minded, puny, needy and childish to expect the experience of reciprocity.  (My edge figures are quite the chorus from a Greek tragedy!)


Meanwhile, a whole gang on the opposite side of the debate are folding their arms across their chests, stamping their feet, pouting and feeling very put out by how unfair it is to always have to be the one who is doing the understanding!


The net result to date, I have to admit, is that in order to shut the tumult up I give in and end up indulging in people pleasing to avoid conflict, which results in my feeling resentful and somewhat used.  Plus, it infantilises the other person by assuming they would not be able to hear where I have felt let down and disappointed by the lack of reciprocity.


I wish I was further down the road on this to be able to say I have it all worked out and have arrived at a place of serenity.  That is not so.  I am glad I have been introduced to Prentis Hemphill’s work, and there may well be more from me on what I learn from them.  I am encouraged that how hard this topic feels may be a good indicator of the healing yet to come, and that by doing that work I am in my own small way contributing to the world I want, which I think is the same world as many others want.  A world in which whole-hearted, generous giving sits comfortably side by side with mutuality and co-operation.  Where one does not cancel the other one out, and where fearless boundary setting is an act of love – equally for self and other.


From my brave heart to yours,


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