What We Get When We Give
Understanding the value of giving, even in times of one's own greatest need.
Posted Dec 14, 2019
"The strong bond of friendship is not always a balanced equation; friendship is not always about giving and taking in equal shares. Instead, friendship is grounded in a feeling that you know exactly who will be there for you when you need something, no matter what or when." —Simon Sinek
The value of getting out of self—of allowing other’s problems to take priority over our own—can't be overstated. Compassion rewires the brain to change the way we engage in relationships and vice versa. Compassion even reduces the effects of PTSD in combat veterans (Lang et al., 2019), and is associated with improved work performance in mental health caregivers (Chu, 2017). If it works for combat vets and nurses, then we'd expected it to be a powerful tool for healing and re-connection.
Take the counterintuitive story of Steve and Duane:
"Just as I was heading out the door on a Saturday morning for my weekly softball game, I got a call from my doctor.
"'Steve,' he said, 'I hate to tell you this—and I came into the office on the weekend, so I could call you—but it looks like you've got prostate cancer.'
"My heart sank. At that moment, my life was over. I was going to be living the next few months or years depressed and suffering. Cancer! Damn. Game over.
"My doc, whom I'd known for decades, cared about me a lot. He told me to come in right away, and we'd start treatment almost immediately."
"'Okay,” I said. What else could I do?
"As soon as I hung up, I called my friend Duane. 'Hey man, Guess what? I just found out I’ve got cancer, and...”
"'Oh, damn,' said Duane, 'I am so very sorry about that. But guess what happened to me? Carrie just walked out! Can you believe it? She took the kids and said she dares me to try to keep the house. She’s hired a high-priced divorce lawyer, so from the get-go, I’m pretty sure there's not a damn thing I can do about it. It’s over.'
"I was so dazed that I wasn’t sure what to say back, so—luckily, I guess—I didn’t say anything. It all seemed surreal: Me with my cancer, and Duane going on and on about what was happening to him.
Well, I’d always cared about Duane, and what was happening to him really was bad. I’d never heard him sound so down. In the seconds before he called, I was slipping into something like almost panic.
But pulling back from my feelings and giving Duane space to tell me what was happening to him automatically changed my focus—actually changed how I was experiencing what my doctor had just told me. And strangely, my sense of suffering and self-pity just kind of faded away to almost nothing as I let my feelings for Duane kick in, even though I knew he was kinda’ being a dick."
Feeling Ripped Off
Where does irrelationship come into this? It’s actually ridiculously simple: No experience is as valuable to us humans as feeling helpful and useful.
This is so true that if we don’t allow others to care for us in a meaningful way, we’re actually ripping them off. That’s irrelationship. On the other hand, connections in which we can offer as well as accept compassion and meet one another’s needs—both simple and dire ones—is relationship sanity. The bonus is that seeking to meet others’ needs meets our own, as Steve learned unexpectedly when he reached out to Duane.
"And so," continued Steve, "I started treatment. It was long and very, very uncomfortable, but I trusted my doctor and did what I was told. Meanwhile, Duane's divorce went on and got pretty ugly. Well, to combat the depression that kept coming at me, I’d pick up the phone and call him just to give him a chance to tell someone what was happening to him and how it was making him feel. Yeah, he was still basically wrapped up in himself, same as always, but every time we talked, giving him that space made me feel better."
If he’d had a better understanding of how his connection with Duane worked, Steve might have been able to share it with Duane in such a way that Duane could see that reaching out to his friend Steve could have benefited himself. But Steve wasn’t quite in a headspace where he was able to ask for what he wanted—and possibly was afraid it might have sounded ridiculous to Duane.
The upshot was that “I survived," Steve said with some sadness. "Duane called me about a year after I was diagnosed, and we had pretty much the same conversation we’d had before. I’d hoped Duane would be able to reach out to me in some way—at least ask what was happening, maybe take me to the doctor or even to lunch.”
Friends with Benefits?
Even so, the benefits Steve realized as he went through this rough patch made him feel less isolated and hopeless. By the time he was clinically described as a “cancer survivor,” he had learned a lot about opening his heart and taking emotional risks, no matter what he was experiencing at the time.
Making space for Duane when it seemed like Duane "should" be more receptive as a friend was paradoxically rewarding. Finding the capacity for generosity and gratitude in the face of great emotional challenge, accepting and valuing others' vulnerability during one's own trying times, lays the foundation for relationship sanity.
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