A few months ago I wrote in this column about how rivers have much to teach us about the natural balance of giving and receiving. I talked about their adaptability and persistence, and their innate ability to navigate the varied landscapes along their way to the sea. I shared the idea that we might find a better sense of balance and satis-faction in our own lives if we follow the examples of rivers and let ourselves go with the flow more often.
What I didn’t get to, however, is how rivers (and streams and other smaller tributaries) ultimately give themselves over to larger bodies of water. How, in the end, they pour everything they’ve gathered along their journey into a much bigger, more diverse ecosystem.
It’s there — where the river becomes the sea — that I believe there’s an important life lesson about what it means to receive and then give generously.
First, though, it’s essential to touch on why the act of giving can be so hard. We live in a world where possessing things is often perceived as a sign of success and stature. This can cause us to become consumed with the idea of having more — more money, clothes, friends, more of anything and everything. We collect and hold on to things, tying our worth to them, often without understanding why.
As humans, we are inherently insecure creatures — like many species, we are herd animals and we find safety in numbers. Since prehistoric times, we have formed tribes to find not only protection but connection. The accumulation of things (whether received as gifts or obtained through personal effort) also offers a sense of security.
Rarely, however, does having more contribute to true happiness and deeper meaning. In fact, it usually leaves us wanting more — and believing that more is better. Known as a scarcity mindset, this leads us to believe that there’s not enough to go around, so we must find and keep whatever we can to feel fulfilled. This creates disharmony in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
A phrase that helps me balance my own urge to accumulate things is “give everything, expect nothing.” I say this because I find giving to be so rewarding and gratifying. It’s through acts of generosity that I experience more joy, peace, and purpose in my life.
And when I give without expecting anything in return, I not only avoid disappointment, but I also feel the balance of getting and giving.
Getting to a mindset of giving freely takes work. It challenges our long-ingrained beliefs that keeping as much as possible ensures our well-being. Reflecting on what we have and what we don’t have, and coming to terms with both, allows us to move forward with the perspective that it’s OK to let go — that we don’t have to “have it all” to be safe.
It’s an evolution, and if you’re not there, don’t worry. Instead, consider it something to aspire to eventually. Do what you can in the meantime.
Giving does not require money or stuff; those things are finite. All it takes is a smile and a “thank you” when someone holds the door open for you. It’s the sharing of unique skills, talents, and knowledge that only you have to pass along. It’s holding someone’s hand through a difficult time and listening with an open heart when people just need to talk.
Every one of us has infinite gifts like these to offer, whether we recognize them or not. The return is a greater sense of well-being than any physical object can ever provide.
And if you are fortunate to have the financial means to share, why wait?
Just as the river reaches its delta and spills into the sea, you too will ultimately surrender it all. You can’t, after all, take anything with you to the next place. So why not start giving now, when you can enjoy the experience of generosity and see for yourself all the benefits and opportunities it has the potential to create for the greater good?