On The Balance of Giving and Taking and Gratitude

Give What You Don’t Need

In spring 2013, I spent several weeks living in Belgrade, Serbia. Near my little neighborhood was a camp of Romani people (what a lot of people refer to as gypsies). Every day I would walk by this wall that was labeled “Daj šta ti ne treba.” In Serbian, that translates to “Give what you do not need.”

The wall’s contents rotated out on a daily basis. People left things. People took things. It looked like junk to me, meaningless, valueless goods. But individual items on that wall had purpose and function to someone else, whether it helped them achieve some task or just kept their spirits high in a rough world.

When You’re In So Much Darkness That You Can’t Understand Good from Bad

Several years ago, I entered a dark world I never thought I’d come back from. I’ve written about it before, in a different light. I was the victim of identity theft committed by a close family member. It took me a long time to sort out the emotion of betrayal. But underneath that emotion is a darker one that even today drags behind me and haunts me. Sometimes when I turn around, I catch a glimpse of my past: a frail shadow hiding around the corner eyeing me suspiciously. I eye her back suspiciously. She is a part of me and she makes an impact on how I connect with others.

Identity theft is a painful life experience that often yields Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Years after it has happened, I still have panic attacks, flashbacks, and moments of self-doubt. The very core of my being is shaken and I have very little trust in bureaucracy as a side effect. I’m paranoid and when things go wrong, I often expect the worst. I never want to be so blindsided like I was back then.

But from inside dark holes sometimes there is a shining light from outside. And as a human, I recovered with profound amounts of emotional scar tissue, largely due to my own unwavering persistence, but also with incredible amounts of gratitude showered over the people who surrounded me at the time. People who, at age 23, I didn’t understand how much I was indebted to their kindness.

When There’s Nothing Left for You To Give and Only Plenty to Take

A major part of resolving my identity theft was hiring a lawyer to help me prepare a fraud affidavit. In cases of identity theft, this typically includes collecting circumstantial evidence from around the time(s) the crime took place. In my case, one of these steps was collecting legally binding documents that contained my signature. While this might sound like a simple task, it took me several months and involved a significant amount of sleuthing, exhausting phone calls, and… again… unwavering persistence.

Because I was so young, there just weren’t that many legal documents with my name on them. I was only listed as an occupant on my lease, not a lessor, and none of the utilities were in my name. And because the crime had taken place anywhere from 7 to 2 years prior and again, I was very young, I didn’t have anything that old laying around. And it was really hard to remember anything I had signed from 2 or more years ago.

I cried a lot, but I realized there wasn’t significant value in crying. It did nothing for me and put me no closer to resolution. And that sense of clarity was what kept me moving and kept me thinking.

I reached out to people who I had not been in contact with for years. The circumstances in which I was reaching out to these people were so depressing and I hated myself for being a burden on their time.

I reached out to former employers requesting any signed employee records of scans of signed checks. I reached out to my high school principal to see if she could think of anything. Of course, she remembered me, but she had nothing to help. There were small victories. And each time I finally retrieved a long lost signature, it was like finding a Golden Ticket for the Willy Wonka factory tour… only I couldn’t stop at one.

I was really close to giving up and accepting that life had chosen to screw me over, when on a whim I contacted an old college advisor. We had to fill out advisement forms regularly, but I was sure that was something that the university would send to the paper shredders on an annual basis. A week went by and I hadn’t heard from her, so I assumed that was a dead end.

And then one day, as I sat in my office, drinking coffee and feeling existentially dead, I saw I had a new e-mail. She had replied. She had been in surgery the past week and had only just seen my e-mail the night before. Still under the influence of post-operative drugs, she still managed to make her way to her office that evening… dig through so many old boxes, and find my advisement form from years ago. Within two hours, she was at my office with a copy.

And that was it. I was able to go see my lawyer, finish my affidavit, and take the last steps towards resolving what, by then, had been a six-month long journey.

This is what life is and this is what good people are. We live in a world that is click-bait-oriented and constantly one-upping each other, but at the end of the day, the things that make the hugest impact are small acts of kindness.

Many acts of kindness added up to save me. What if my boss at the time had not been empathetic to my situation? I juggled a large portion of my workday between doing work very efficiently (more so than normal) and using the leftover time to make phone calls and visit the police and my lawyer.

What if the person who recommended my lawyer, an older client of the company I worked for, hadn’t? I don’t know what I would have done.

What if the person I had been dating at the time had just decided to let me lay in bed and whimper helplessly rather than give me the tough love I needed to get up and face the world?

What if my parents hadn’t raised me to be a strong, independent warrior of a woman? I’d have crumbled.

What if this advisor had decided to stay home and peacefully recover from her surgery? That would have been completely reasonable on her part, and maybe I’d have gone on to find some elusive other signature, but maybe I wouldn’t have.

When It Comes Back to You, Don’t Forget and Don’t Fight It

This past week, someone asked me to do a favor for them that I found to be extremely inconvenient. I was really annoyed because they didn’t express to me any “thanks” or respect for my time. And it broke me down into a frustrated mindset that I am always giving and yet it feels like the world is always taking from me. And the reality is that I just wasn’t thinking or being truly appreciative of all the times that people have given to me and I had forgotten or failed to see their efforts.

Every day you are given opportunities to do small, seemingly inconsequential things that might be life-changing to others. And maybe, in doing those things, the people who you do them for won’t be able to express gratitude in the moment for them. You might be tempted to think, “Gee, thanks.”

Years down the road, when the people you give these inconsequential things to or do these kind gestures that seem so small to you for, and they are hopefully in a better place, they will remember.

But it doesn’t matter if they do or not. The important take-away is that you understand the balance of giving and remembering all that has been given to you. Your life is an accumulation of things you do for yourself, elevated by an uncountable groundwork of little, beautiful acts of kindness from everyone around you.

Give what you do not need: whether that’s junk, money, or when you have nothing else to give–even your spare time. Someone needs it. And one day you will too.