Better to Give Than to Receive?

Terry Lieb Coping with Adversity 14 Comments

For several years our church has been providing a free dinner each month for folks in the community. It has grown into a meaningful ministry. Most appreciate a good “church-made” meal but equally important has been the opportunity for fellowship amongst members and the community at large. Obviously while we were under stay-at-home orders, the dinner was temporarily canceled. However within a short time the team transitioned to delivering the meals to the homes of anyone who called in and requested one.

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I called an older neighbor who lives alone to check on him to make sure he was weathering the quarantine alright. I explained what our church was doing and asked if I could drop a meal off for him. He quickly declined, stating that he isn’t a member of any church and doesn’t buy into all this “God stuff” anyway! I explained that the free meal had nothing to do with church membership or any specific belief.

He then assured me that he had taken care of himself for over 80 years and is still quite able to do that. “I have plenty of canned soup and oatmeal, and my one daughter stops by every two weeks when she goes grocery shopping and picks up what other few things I need,” he told me.

I then shifted my pitch to how good of a cook the lady is who makes the meals. I thought I was making some progress when he cut me off abruptly, saying, “I’m sure she is a good cook and thanks for calling.“ The next thing I knew, the line clicked off!

After I hung up, I shared my frustrations at his unwillingness to except any help with Rita. She got very quiet and eventually said, “Sounds like someone I have been living with for the past 48 years!”

“Who might that be?” I asked innocently.

Smiling, Rita said, “Think about how many times you’ve heard me say ‘please allow me to do this one thing for you!’”

She was right. Just the night before, after I spent a long day of working in the yard, she asked if she could finish the dishes so I could get to bed. My response was, “Thanks but it won’t take me long to finish up here.”

This insistence is certainly a pattern for me, not just in minor matters but major ones as well. A few years ago one of my grandsons was seriously ill with a condition that baffled the doctors, it hit me harder than anything I’ve ever dealt with before. But, even after relentlessly telling others that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, I found it difficult to reach out for support myself despite the fact I needed it badly. As the most senior family member and a mental health professional besides I felt like I needed to be the one supporting everyone else.

Why do I have such a hard time accepting help? I expect it mainly stems from the messages I got growing up in the coal region of Pennsylvania. My father was a hard-working coal miner, shifting jobs based on where work was available and we struggled financially just like many of the families in that small rural community.

The messages I heard on a regular basis were: work hard and pull your own weight, don’t depend on anyone else, pull yourself up by the bootstraps (that was always confusing for me since I could not remember any footwear I had or ever saw that had anything resembling bootstraps!) and don’t ask anyone else for help, most folks have more than they can handle on their own plate.

Good relationships require give AND take.

All of those messages and my swallowing them also made for fertile ground for judging folks who were willing to accept “handouts” or even—gasp!—ask for help at times! Even though giving to the poor and helping the less fortunate was encouraged in church, at the very same time, folks getting any type of assistance were often looked down upon and labeled as lazy or “freeloaders.” While giving was seen as “Christian” and virtuous, receiving was not.

This entire dynamic has worked its way into how I see myself and how I see and respond to the world around me. It was years before I began to question what my attitude toward receiving help—whether practical or emotional—actually means. If I give to someone while at the same time judging them negatively for needing my help to start with, is that really the kind of giving God wants me to offer? Is God’s highest wish for us all to be independent and self-sufficient, or might it be part of God’s hopes for us that we respond to the times of hardship and need that we all experience throughout our lives by reaching out and supporting one another?

The last several years I began to realize how my struggle to accept help from others, let alone ask for it, has stifled my existing relationships and negated many potential new ones. By always needing to be the giver and never the receiver, I always have to be in the upper-hand position and unintentionally keep people at arm’s length. As Brené Braun says in her powerful TED talk, vulnerability is an absolutely necessary component of intimacy. And nothing makes you more vulnerable than admitting you need help and asking for it.

By refusing to accept help, I also deprive others of the joy of giving and being needed. Good relationships require give AND take.

When I consistently refuse help from friends and family, aren’t I subtly suggesting that there is something wrong with accepting help and inadvertently encourage them to do the same? What unknown gifts might they have shared if only I had been willing to ask? I will never know the toll that my unwillingness to accept help has taken on the depth of relationship I might have experienced.

It has been a lifelong struggle to combat those early messages that are now hard-wired into my operating system. At times I feel I’m making some progress and then I catch myself slipping right back to my default position. Until I can easily and unashamedly accept and even ask for help, I haven’t really, truly let go of the stigma around it. I’m not there yet. But I’m still trying. I could use some help!



  1. What blatant or subtle messages did you receive around accepting or asking for help? Are you comfortable with these messages or are you trying to rewrite them?
  2. How do you feel toward people who need help? When you help others, do you do this joyously and non-judgmentally or with reservations? Are you happy with your attitude?
  3. Are you able to accept or ask for help when you need it? Alternatively, do you ever ask for help when you don’t need it, taking advantage of others’ generosity? Do you have a healthy balance between give and take?
  4. We tend to think of people as givers or takers. What impact would it have if we thought everyone was—and should be—both a giver and taker?
  5. How has your ability to receive help affected the quality of your relationships? Has the desire to be strong and self-sufficient ever gotten in the way of vulnerability and intimacy? If so, how could you have done things differently and what might the result have been?
  6. How have your present attitudes toward these issues affected your response to the challenging issues we are faced with today as a society?
  7. What kind of world would this be if everyone was completely independent? Would it be preferable to what we have? What would be lost in such a world?


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July 2, 2020 7:19 pm

What a beautiful reminder of the importance of being able to accept gifts of help from others, without feeling a loss of one’s own esteem. So many of us are raised to believe that we have to be fully independent and capable of handling whatever challenges are placed before us. To be less, implies that we are inadequate and weak. Thanks, Terry, for putting this into a perspective we can understand so positively.

Anthony Bifulco
Anthony Bifulco
July 2, 2020 9:35 pm

Great job as usual you are right on.

Susan Gabel
Susan Gabel
July 2, 2020 9:38 pm

Really enjoyed the insight of your article. I believe the ramifications of this issue affects much more than either of us realize. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Hope you and Rita are doing well.

July 3, 2020 7:04 am

Excellent food for thought Terry. I value independence in my life, and encouraged it in my children. Is intimacy a victim of that teaching? This is a topic worth exploring with them . The world would be a sadder place if we all valued independence above intimacy.

Mary Ann
Mary Ann
July 3, 2020 7:40 am

A wonderful reminder of a critical time in my life more than 20 years ago. My husband, now deceased, had been unexpectedly diagnosed with an incurable disease. We had several discussions with someone else with a serious diagnosis. Her one piece of advise was to let others help. She said many would offer and we should try to let them do so, even if it was just to pick up items at the dry cleaners. She guaranteed us that it would be more important to our friends to help than for us to have the help received.

Dan Maslanik
Dan Maslanik
July 3, 2020 8:35 am

As always you are right on Terry. I have the same problem accepting help from anyone because of showing weakness or worst of all “old age”.
Take care “Old Buddy” and our love to you and Rita.

Bill Kelly
Bill Kelly
July 3, 2020 9:01 am

I can only reiterate what you have so eloquently stated and many have agreed. It seems from a very early age we are taught to be self-sufficient, beholding to no man and just get the job done, never ask for help, sign of weakness! Then as my walk with God progressed, it became natural to help when you can, however you can! But to ask for help….still a very, very hard thing for me to do. I am in a men’s Christian fellowship group and we have discussed this time and time again. It is not only right but at… Read more »

Paul Hoh
Paul Hoh
July 3, 2020 10:01 am

Barbara Streisand sang “People Who Need People Are the Luckiest People in the World.” Kind of the reverse of our normal way to thinking!

Tom Orsulak
Tom Orsulak
July 3, 2020 10:13 am

Terry, thanks for reminding us that not only in giving do we receive, but in receiving we give.

Karen Favinger
Karen Favinger
July 9, 2020 10:54 am
Reply to  Tom Orsulak

My dad use to say we need to allow others to help us so they can do a God’s work of giving.As you so eloquently stated, for some of us it is difficult to accept the help.

Mary W Gade
Mary W Gade
July 4, 2020 8:05 am

I was thinking about your dad, with a smile, before you even mentioned him. I broke my one leg and sprained the other the first week of Advent on internship. I have always said it was the best lesson of that year. I needed help for everything I did. I saw the joy others experienced in being able to help me. It opened me to allow others to help me. Obviously, my long learned messages that mirror yours, did not disappear but another option comes into play on my better days. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

Ron Wildasin
Ron Wildasin
July 4, 2020 9:30 am

I really like how you are able to encourage us to think through the everyday issues we encounter; many we struggle to define or are not aware how it is received by others. You are indeed a story teller and a researcher.

Peggy Sue
Peggy Sue
July 4, 2020 12:22 pm

Oh my, reading this reflection was a Pentecost moment. I heard you speaking in my own native tongue. Not simply because I too hail from Northeastern PA, but because the images were/are so deeply set in my being. I read this on July 4, after having had some family visit earlier in the week. While with me they helped with a number of chores. All things I could have done by myself, but a recent flare-up of ulcers caused me to let things slide. Reading your reflection reminded me that I said “Thank-you” with more embarrassment in my voice than… Read more »

September 9, 2020 8:34 am

Hi Terry, You have a lovely blog and your writing style and story telling is very interesting. It was very nice meeting you at the lake the other day. While you were loading your kayaks in the water. Stay safe and it was wonderful meeting you and your lovely wife.
Sincerely, Lynnette Van Balen