Accepting Kindness

The 21st leg of the virtual Camino.

Times of scarcity need to be met with generosity, times of fear with comfort, times of uncertainty with presence. When we care for those around us, we create a field of love. – THOMAS HÜBL

I’ve been thinking about the bridges we pass along this route from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Finisterre. Stone, wooden and virtual.

I’ve been thinking about the small plank walkways that haven enabled E. and me to cross the moors these weeks here in Jæren, without damaging the wildlife – or even getting our feet wet. These tiny bridges span stone to stone, from pasture to pasture, and they’re checked and repaired each spring by workers and volunteers along all of Norway’s wild trails.

My favorite bridges in the world are the covered bridges in my grandmother’s home state of Vermont. Covered bridges are like being carried over the water by loving arms. Bridges as a metaphor for connection, yes. But they are also evidence of care: the kindness we do for one another: a very long-distance “let me help you”.

And there is something even more caring when they are celebrated with aesthetic elements. Like how a simple gift carefully wrapped compels the recipient to pay attention to giver’s intention. “It’s the thought that counts.” It’s the deep intention behind the care.

And by this I don’t mean that “a lot of thought went into the gift”. I mean: this gift is a message – the message is not in the gift, but in the giving.

Receive it with a fearless heart.

I think this receiving bit is easier said than done.

Historically, gift-giving has been about the exchanging of goods or compliments. Tit for tat. Establishing social bonds and obligations. I like clear contracts. I’m okay with this really. When I know the rules.

A friend of mine once told me about the “tyranny of the gift“.  I know this exists: this is the evil twin of… kindness. I’m uncomfortable using the word generosity, because generosity implies a kind of sacrifice on the part of the giver. 

I know there is nothing that says that an act of generosity inherently involves sacrifice. But here I have it in my head and in my heart. And why would a stranger sacrifice something for me?

Why would she give me an apple? It must be poisonous. She must want what is in my sack. She is going to want what is in my sack tomorrow. Once I take a bite and then she’ll ask for money. For a favor. For… 

Something will be expected of me and I will fail – down the line – to behave properly. I will be punished.

I swear that when I was studying primates in college and tried to give food to a low-ranking macaque I felt sorry for, she had the same suspicion: “What will I have to pay for this, and how?”

After a painful minute of total stillness, she grabbed the monkey chow biscuit as fast as possible (scratching me in the process) and ran away.

And she did pay for it – because a higher ranking monkey caught up with her and punished her. (That was the last time I interfered with a macaque hierarchy.) 

Receiving a gift as an act of kindness requires faith. It also requires risk, and an acceptance of the unknown.

Accepting kindness from strangers well – without suspicion – is a gift in itself.

I know I am not the only one who was taught as a child that “thank you” is the “payment” for a gift. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be a message in return if the intention is receiving is there: I see the kindness in your gift, and I – fearlessly – accept your care.

And if all this seems odd to you. If your faith is not tested when you are faced with kindness, then I believe that – sometime in your life – you were given the greatest gift ever. 

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