Hey! It’s a new post. And it’s nothing at all to do with writing.

I’ve been moving a lot of my social media attention to a site called Shuffle, and I was recently asked to pick the Theme of the Week. I picked Reciprocation, and here’s the resulting post.

I’ll do a post on writing soon. I promise. In the meanwhile, enjoy this one!


Please note that nothing in the following post is intended to apply to parents of small children. That’s a special subset where no reciprocation is really possible. It’s irritating that I even have to say that, but there you go.

“I can’t ever get enough help! Nobody’s willing to take time for me, and after all I’ve done for them! I’m going to stop helping people!”

I’ve heard that, and said it myself, so often it’s almost become background static. I used to be a big fan of helping others without expecting a return on that investment. I’m too old and cranky for that these days. I’ve begun to be extremely leery of giving with absolutely no expectations attached. It’s not the glorious nirvana it’s touted to be. Mind you, I’m saying this as someone who leans strongly towards Buddhism and paganism. American culture simply doesn’t support the dana mindset on a long term, sustainable basis. It’s possible, sure! It’s great, sure! But it only actually works within a very narrow framework, usually one tied heavily into religion.

Being choosy in my giving isn’t easy. There are so many people who need help. So many worthy, desperately valuable causes out there. It feels selfish and narrow and heartless to say “I can’t help you, because this won’t help me in any way.”

(No, I’m not talking about donating money to your favorite cause, although it could be argued that you get the warm glow of being a Kind Person when you donate, and that a cause that matters to you is advanced, so you do benefit. Whatever. Moving on.)

I’ve seen so many folks give indiscriminately of money, time, and labor — I’ve done it myself! — only to be met, in their own hour of desperate need, with excuses from those they’ve helped that are rarely more substantial than “I have to wash my hair tonight.” It’s incredibly frustrating and can put a kind person off generosity for life. I’ve seen that type: sour people who refuse to give a penny because “let ’em earn it themselves, I had to fend for myself, they can too.”

Giving is good. Being kind is good. Doing so to prove that you’re A Good Person, doing so to the point of harming yourself … is not.

Giving and receiving is a tangly mess shot through with guilt and shame and expectations and social codes and moral codes and religious teachings. Everyone has to decide for themselves how to navigate the tangle. There’s no simple answer, no straight path that works for everyone out there.

I’ll offer up a look at my own answer, not as prescription but as example.

A healthy friendship is a series of negotiations and exchanges. There’s a balance that has to be held up on both sides. If I only give, and my friend never gives back, then it’s not really a friendship. I need to stop giving and see what happens when I’m not the only one making an effort. If she only gives, and I never give back, then I’m not being a friend at all, and I need to either let her go or start doing something to hold up my side.

It can be as simple as a fifty cent candy bar grabbed on the way through the grocery line and delivered with “I was thinking about you today and I know you like these.” It can be as simple as a texted photo of a pretty flower. The tiny things accumulate.

I’ve started noticing who offers up these small moments as a routine gift, and who only shows up to help when they want something in return. I’ve started to pay attention to the little things I offer up routinely, and thinking about where I’m not giving — and why. Usually there’s a good reason, and I need to face it.

Conscious reciprocation is hard. Thinking of being kind as a negotiation, thinking of it strategically, seems as though we’re missing the point–turning it into a calculation, return on investment, cost basis, numbers! But as I get older, I’m beginning to believe that if the calculations come from a place of real compassion and kindness, they’ll always skew towards being good. It’s when you start thinking more about the “you” side of the equation than about holding up the overall balance that things go wonky and veer into the wrong kind of selfishness.

And truly receiving — being open to receiving the gifts that the world at large offers up to us on a daily basis — requires a deep compassion, humility, and balance. If you can accept a gift with grace, I think there’s always going to be a reflexive urge to give back in some way. Learning to trust ourselves, and to trust our friends, and to trust the universe at large, is insanely difficult. But it leads us down a road of being clear on who we want to give to, and why; and who we’ll accept gifts from, and why. Ditto on letting go of the tangle of guilt and shame that distorts so many of our interactions.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about an aspect of expectation-laden giving that makes me really angry: giving too much for too little return, to the point of burn out.

If you’re burned out and you need to stop helping people, go ahead. Maybe all you need is to let other people give to you. Maybe it’s a permanent shut door for you. That’s okay! This world burns through the best of us. It’s not a failure on your part.

It’s okay to stop helping people if it’s hurting you.


Trust me. The world will not stop turning. The people you’re helping might find another way to get what they need. They might not. But you cannot, MUST NOT drive yourself into the ground for someone who can’t get their shit together.

YOU are not replaceable. The work you’re doing can be done by someone else. YOU cannot be replaced. If your love and care and time and labor is not being returned, WALK AWAY. There are people out there who will love you back, and will hand over abundant kindness with great joy. Go find them. Go find people you can reciprocate with. If you catch yourself saying the words at the beginning of this post — you’re giving too much and not getting enough back. Go find people to hang out with that are a better match for you. You’re not too old. You’re not too poor. You’re not too strange. You’re not too disabled. Not in this day and age. There are ways. Find them.

For those of you who aren’t burned out — look at the balance in your life, and make sure you’re clear on your priorities. Let go of the guilt, stop worrying about being mean, and give where your heart is. Please take care of yourselves. Make sure you reciprocate. Keep that balance steady. Keep the people you love balanced. You are precious. So are they. Treat them like it, every chance you get.

Please share your best experience of reciprocation in the comments. I’d love to hear about it!

Leave a Reply