To her who gives and takes back all, to nature, the man who is instructed and modest says, “Give what you will; take back what you will.” And he says this not proudly, but obediently and well pleased with her. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X:14 (George Long, trans.)
On its face, this quotation from Marcus expresses the Stoic theme that Nature, i.e. the will of the universe, ebbs and flows. Life does whatever it does irrespective of our desires. Nature gives all and takes back all. The wise person recognizes this and is content with Nature’s gifts as well as its withholdings and revocations. Stoics are enjoined to live in agreement with Nature, to align ourselves with what is truly happening.
There’s a further valuable lesson within this teaching about Nature’s giving/taking, or perhaps better, this giving/receiving dynamic, which is that our own interior sense of balance is governed by this toggling giving and receiving.
It is a hard thing to be a human being. It is also a lonely thing to be human. We can be married and be lonely. We can be famous and be lonely. We can be ensconced in family or work and still be lonely. We hold back the parts of ourselves that might be misunderstood or mis-received. Mind you, privacy is a good thing; it fortifies our dignity. But connection to Nature and to each other is necessary, even redemptive.
Loneliness is a throbbing weight. We ease its oppressiveness in each other by simply showing up; by giving of our own imperfect selves. We give what the situation calls for, and then things get better. Our own loneliness is eased and unsought sources of bounty appear in unexpected places balancing the scales by casting us as receivers.
When in doubt, give.
There is a little ditty my late artist friend Nathan used to sing. I forget the tune, but the words themselves are one of the best instant spiritual tuneups around:
From you I receive.
To you I give.
Together we share.
This is how we live.
Nathan nailed it. When in doubt, give. When in joy, give. When in sadness, give. When in fear, give. Give what? Anything. Whatever you have right now in this imperfect moment, from imperfect me, from imperfect you.
Many get hamstrung by the scourge of exceptionalism. When we contemplate giving something, it needs to be special, extraordinary. Let’s dial back on that and quit driving ourselves nuts. It’s the ordinary give and receive, the everyday give and receive that is the matrix of the world. We give a smile, a pencil, our seat, a telephone call, our time. Nothing fancy. We give what we have. And, when we do, we are living artfully; we are in conformance with Nature.
The 1960s abstract artist/activist Sister Corita Kent often said “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” We just do everything as well as we can: right now. We give what we’ve got. That’s it.
Copyright © by Sharon Lebell 2021