The gift is stunning, arrayed in scarlet satin, adorned in gilded bows. Here, says the giver, presenting it with relish. I have chosen this especially for you. I am giving it according to your need. There is no other occasion, no other motive.
You believe him; your need hastens that decision—for as you open the decadent package, you see it is a platter piled with money. There is no promissory; this is not a loan.
You fall at the giver’s feet. I am overcome. You kiss his ring, tell him he is a pillar, a paragon. I do not know what I would do without kinsmen like you.
But it is only this last part that perks the ear of the giver. There are others? I am not your only source? I am not your sole rescuer, your singular kinsman, your only salvation?
You are not my salvation at all, is what you think, but before you utter words, you rise and stand at full height. No. Of course you are not, you state with certainty, for the people who love and care for you cannot be numbered, even if they do not have the means to help you stave off your personal hellhounds.
The giver is deeply displeased. He reaches into his satchel and brings out a cluster of cords. Here are my strings; they are many. Accept them along with the gift or you will depart with nothing.
You remember your pining for more than the crusts of bread, for a well-soled shoe, for the luxuries of a parlor’s grooming. You wince at the echoes of creditors, cringe at the memory of the computerized self-checkout voice barking a grocery total that staggers you. You calculate the balance of days that your daughter will spend wearing diapers.
I will fasten myself to your strings, but only for a time.
The giver grins. Then this is to be an indentured servitude. I will alert you when the racks of my conditions have been cleared.
Years later, you still rub your wrists. You are better off; no one is after you. You can walk with your head held aloft, owing nothing. For all intents, for every purpose, you are free; you’ve the papers to prove it. But the cosmic damage has been done.
Now, when anyone offers to help you, you are wary. You recoil from beautiful packages; you tremble at the hand that proffers an unearned check.
Every generous gesture is greeted with a bemused half-smile and a polite, but resolved, “No thank you.”
It is better to give than to receive. It is easier, too.
They mistake it for pride, the new givers. Just learn to take a compliment, a gift. No reciprocity is expected, they insist, their patience wearing thin.
But they do not know the grace it requires to accept without distrust. They do not know how desperately you have to parse your gratitude. It must be pulled from the uncompromised parts of yourself; you must find it in the unbroken places, where the last giver could never seem to shatter you by calling you a “user” or an “ingrate.”
It amazes you that you are even still capable of such grace, and anyone who knew the serfdom you’d escaped would grant you the gradation you will need to achieve it. You will learn to open your hand, without expecting the sting of a lash. You will recall the small flourish of curtsies. But you will not apologize for the years it may take to do so. And you will never again be so clouded by need that you will extend your gratitude and graces to wolfish givers.