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Grace: the art of receiving love

I have tried a few times to express appreciation to my friend. He has a big heart and he’s also a capable, practical man. But he shies away from receiving compliments. It’s as though he disappears: the words have nowhere to land. This is frustrating for me - I want him to know that I appreciate him. It’s genuine! Yet I remind myself that I have done the same thing many times; batting away a compliment.


There are many reasons we do this. We wish to be modest and are afraid that praise will inflate the ego; or we do not wish to be in debt to another person. Or we lack trust and suspect flattery or some hidden intention. All these and more may be true.


Yet it may be that behind all this there is a belief that we do not deserve to receive love and appreciation. After all, none of us are good all the time and in every way. We all have some regret. The appreciation I expressed for my friend was for real and observable qualities. At the same time I recognise that he is not perfect, but that is okay.   


The idea of grace expresses a state where we can receive love whether we deserve it or not. In doing so, we must be open to who we are in our wholeness. To accept ourselves as not all good, yet still lovable. Sometimes our vulnerabilities make it easier for others to care about us.


The poet William Stafford describes grace as "that blind, benevolent side of even the fiercest world". He is saying that grace is there for us no matter who we are, whatever our circumstances, whatever we have done. We only have to open to it.


When we cannot receive love, we block the life-blood of relationship. Giving and receiving are two sides of a coin. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, without one, the other cannot exist. The idea that giving is good but receiving is bad does not make sense. What is the point of showing someone love if they cannot allow it in?


For many of us, learning to accept love takes practice. There may be resistance to overcome. We may like the idea of being someone who is strong enough to give but needs little in return. We may believe that receiving kindness signifies weakness. And so, we become more comfortable with giving than receiving. In which case, it is all the more valuable to cultivate the capacity to receive love. We all need love: denial of this fact leads to unhappiness.


I am pleased to see more loving kindness meditation practices taught nowadays. Generating positive emotions builds on mindfulness practice. It adds a fresh dimension of warm connection. In the context of such practices, we bring to mind good wishes for other people and also for ourselves. Cultivating well-wishing for others, we are the giver of kindness and compassion. But when we focus on ourselves, we also become the receiver of goodwill. In a group meditation there may be an invitation to allow well-wishing to flow out to one another. In this case, we again become both the giver and the receiver of good wishes. It is useful to notice if we find one side of that equation more comfortable than the other.


Allowing warmth to flow produces happier relationships. Over the years, I have learned to accept compliments with more grace. It feels respectful when someone is expressing gratitude. And, it's nice to feel appreciated!


Grace Abounding (excerpt) by William Stafford:


Air crowds into my cell so considerately

that the jailer forgets this kind of gift

and thinks I’m alone. Such unnoticed largesse

smuggled by day floods over me,

or here come grass, turns in the road,

a branch or stone significantly strewn

where it wouldn’t need to be.


Such times abide for a pilgrim, who all through

a story or life may live in grace, that blind,

benevolent side of even the fiercest world.

Image cropped from photo by RDNE Stock project

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