“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive.” (St. Francis of Assisi)
One aspect of Christianity that I most resonate with is its’ focus on the interior life. That is, whereas many other religions, and whereas American society especially, tend to focus much more on externals, Christian spirituality emphasizes the centrality of what is happening in people’s minds and hearts to a much greater extent. In this beautiful quotation from a well-known prayer, St. Francis of Assisi particularly highlights the importance of an individual’s motivation in everyday life.
In this culture, we often seek to receive. More specifically, because we often crave to experience closeness in relationships, we direct significant energy toward trying to get attention, approval, affection, and admiration. This idea plays a central role in Abraham Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, and it is one of the most accepted among scholars of human behavior. However, there is a problem in this focus in that we do not control others. We may be able to influence others, but we cannot force others to love us. We cannot manufacture intimacy just because we need it. Furthermore, many people become preoccupied with trying to get love. Placing significant value on attaining something that we can’t control is a recipe for unhappiness. Seeking to receive also may be considered to reflect a lack of maturity, particularly in terms of spiritual development.
Coming out of a Christian worldview, the prayer of St. Francis is countercultural in that it places the emphasis on giving. We may not be able to control how much love we receive, or how much intimacy we experience, but we do control how much love we give. Whereas dwelling on receiving love may lead to chronic discontent, committing one’s life to giving to others may be one of the essential components to a meaningful life.
This has been a hard lesson for me. (As somewhat of an aside, my only elevated MMPI score in graduate school was for an overly “high need for affection!”) I can remember several times in several different relationships over the years where I have sought something from another or where I have become fixated on a level of intimacy that I had in mind as expected or desired. The result inevitably has been discouragement. Over time, I have learned that it is wiser, and more consistent with my Christian values, to focus on giving. With this change in perspective, I have found much more peace and meaning.
Of course, this shouldn’t discount the fact that we all truly do need a sense of connection and belonging. Many of the best Christian thinkers have thought of this as a manifestation of a much deeper spiritual yearning. For example, Meister Eckhart’s answer to this vexing problem was to emphasize that humans are not primary, that we were not intended to be our own sources of life. Humans do need to receive, he emphasized, but not from fallible sources, such as other people. Rather, we all have souls that have a God-shaped void in the center. We each need to be deeply penetrated with the Divine presence to be able to experience the love and intimacy that we all ache to receive.