The Marginalian
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Search results for “giving and receiving”

Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and the Shared Dignity of Giving and Receiving

“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

“It would be a terrible calamity,” Henry Miller wrote in his meditation on the beautiful osmosis between giving and receiving, “for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches.” And yet, we live in a culture that perpetuates the false perception of a certain power dynamic between giver and receiver, and — worse yet — stigmatizes the very act of asking as undignified.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful Amanda Palmer who, besides being an extraordinarily talented musician, is also a fellow champion of open culture and believer in making good work freely available, trusting that those who find value in it will support it accordingly. Disillusioned with the questionable success standards of the music industry, she recently left her record label and set out to self-release her next album in what became the most heartily funded music project in the history of Kickstarter — but not without some harsh criticism by those too attached to the crumbling comforts of the Olden Ways. In this brave talk, easily my favorite TED talk of all time, Amanda invites us to reclaim the art of asking from the insecure grip of shame and celebrate it instead as the sublime surge of mutuality that it is:

Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.


I don’t see these things as risks — I see them as trust. … But the perfect tools can’t help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly — but, more importantly, to ask without shame. … When we really see each other, we want to help each other. I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’

Given how close to home Amanda’s eloquent words strike, I chatted with her about what seems to be the greatest challenge to this cultural shift toward destigmatizing asking:

MP: As someone who’s been called an “internet pan-handler” for asking my community for support, I’m astounded by some people’s cynicism in failing to see the dignified mutuality in these exchanges. What can we do to shift the culture around them from pan-handling to daisy-handing?

AP: Well…this is the problem with doing a 12-minute TED talk instead of writing a 220-page book. There’s a lot of simplification involved. The concept is more or less that when you trust people to help you, they often do, and artists have done this from the dawn of time. I’m sure the early-days minstrels were epically talented couchsurfers. Maybe there were cave-surfers way back in the day, who knows.

I saw a comment on the TED website that basically said, “this model is bullshit… would you feel OK if Justin Bieber decided to crowdsource teenage girls to be his maids and clean his room, etc.,” and that got me thinking. First of all, it isn’t about the theoretical, it’s about what artists/people actually do. I doubt Justin Bieber would think it was a wise idea to let a giddy little fan into his pad and clean up his stuff, it’d be a huge pain in this ass for him and his privacy, etc., since he’s a celebrity and all he’d need is that one fan tweeting a picture of the joint and used condom by his bedside and he’d have a PR nightmare on his hands.

And the Bieber example is odd, because it involves children, but let’s say the example was, I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne. Let’s say Ozzy puts out a call for crowdsourced maids. If an adult raises his or her hand and says, “Hell yes!!! I’m happy to spend X time being Ozzy’s maid, this’ll be interesting,” isn’t that a fair exchange between two consenting adults? Don’t people do weird shit all the time for each other, for free, just for the experience? The story? The feeling?

What if we replaced Ozzy with … I don’t know … the Dalai Llama? Would we judge it differently? A lot of young monks give up their possessions, go study with a master, and do their master’s dishes … and we think of this in a kind of gentle-hearted karate-kid sort of romanticism. …

The idea is to let adults make their own rules, their own exchanges, their own decisions. We all value different things and experiences in different ways — and we can get very creative about it, and about the ways we help each other.

To partake in the architecture of this new paradigm and revel in the two-way street of this glorious mutuality, support Amanda’s music and ethos on her site, where you can download her fantastic new album — for free or for however much you’d like — and go see one of her shows if you get a chance. For more of her spirit of fierce openness, follow her Twitter.

Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED


Henry Miller on the Beautiful Balance of Giving and Receiving

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt.”

In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us her timeless and ever-timely meditations on self-publishing, what maturity really means, the difference between Paris and New York came — Nin shares a letter she received in the summer of 1942 from Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980), with whom she’d been closely involved creatively, intellectually and, for a long time, romantically.

Miller, passionately articulate as ever, gets to the heart of the paradox of altruism and the beautiful osmosis of giving and receiving.

He writes:

By choosing to live above the ordinary level we create extraordinary problems for ourselves. The ultimate goal is to make this earth a paradise.


For me it is no problem to depend on others. I am always curious to see how far people will go, how big a test one can put them to.

Certainly there are humiliations involved, but aren’t these humiliations due rather to our limitations? Isn’t it merely our pride which suffers? It’s only when we demand that we are hurt. I, who have been helped so much by others, I ought to know something of the duties of the receiver. It’s so much easier to be on the giving side. To receive is much harder — one actually has to be more delicate, if I may say so. One has to help people to be more generous. By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service.

And then finally, no one likes to do either one or the other alone. We all try to give and take, to the best of our powers. It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then? Must we not become strong in order to help, rich in order to give and so on? How will these fundamental aspects of life ever change?

Complement with Amanda Palmer, many decades later, on the art of asking. More of Nin and Miller’s correspondence can be found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller.


Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding

“It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.”

Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his landmark 1822 “crystallization” model of how we fall in and out of love. What he was actually describing, however — in those Cartesian epochs before it was acceptable or even conceivable that matters of feeling could be functions of mental activity and subjects of the reasoned study we call science — was limerence. A century and a half later, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam on limerence in his lament that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” Except limerence is the profound unmooring masquerading as the mooring post.

Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. Anyone who has never experienced it feels baffled that a state so illogical can so possess otherwise rational and responsible people with no distinct psychopathology. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Psychologist and philosopher of science Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerence in the 1970s, drawing on a decade of research: data from thousands of questionnaires she administered, centuries of autobiographies and published personal journals, and several hundred case studies of people she interviewed from a wilderness of backgrounds and life-situations, all revealing a strikingly similar experience. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her work became foundational to attachment theory, she died a footnote in the literature of her field.

Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)

Tennov writes:

People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.

Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:

  • intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
  • acute longing for reciprocation
  • dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
  • inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
  • some fleeting and transient relief from unrequited limerent passion through vivid imagination of action by LO that means reciprocation
  • fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
  • intensification through adversity (at least, up to a point)
  • acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
  • an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
  • buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident
  • a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
  • a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in LO and to avoid dwelling on the negative, even to respond with a compassion for the negative and render it, emotionally if not perceptually, into another positive attribute
Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:

The onset of limerence has a voluntary feel about it. We go readily and willfully toward its promises of joy. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. Rational bases for hopefulness have been exhausted. The intrusions and literal aches of unfulfilled desire and precious wasted moments of life force the recognition that control may not be total. You even wonder about the past when control seemed possible, if not assured. Uncertainty increases. You wonder if you had the control you thought you had and whether you ever will again.


Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. This exclusivity, which always occurs in limerence, weakens the effect of physical attractiveness, since the most beautiful individual in the world cannot compete with LO once limerence has taken hold.

Even so, and crucially so, Tennov is careful to make clear that although limerence is at odds with rationality, although it can be painful to the point of agony for the limerent and uncomfortable to the point of exasperation for the LO at whom its glaring beam of attention and need is directed, it is not a psychopathology, nor does it have correlation or consistent co-occurrence with any known mental illnesses. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)

Tennov also draws a distinction between limerence and projection:

Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. In the laboratory, it was found that prolonged exposure to the imprinting object or person was unnecessary. In fact, the attachment could be undermined by too much familiarity.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s visionary 19th-century illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play about limerence at its deadliest. (Available as a print.)

When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:

Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states.

The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov contours the paradoxical demand:

For the process to develop fully, some form of uncertainty or doubt, or even some threat to reciprocation appears necessary. There is considerable evidence that an externally imposed obstacle, such as Romeo and Juliet met in the resistance of family and society, may also serve.


Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. Something must happen to break a totally positive interaction. Not that totally positive reactions are without highly redeeming features in themselves; it is only that they stop the progression to full or maximum limerence.

She adds:

However unappealing it may be in a universe conceived as orderly and humane, the fact is undeniable; fear of rejection may cause pain, but it also enhances desire.


Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.

A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. It is, in fact, sustained by that slender thread of possibility fraying from the loom of the improbable. Tennov writes:

Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Your limerent daydreams may be unlikely, even highly unlikely, but they retain fidelity to the possible.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

She examines the elementary particles and fundamental forces of limerence:

Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.


Because limerent fantasy depends on how you actually perceive reality, its content, which leads up to and renders plausible the ecstatic finale, varies not only from person to person, but from day to day as new knowledge becomes available.

Across all the limerents Tennov studied, the process follows a basic life-cycle and results in a set number of possible outcomes:

Limerence may begin as a barely perceptible feeling of increased interest in a particular person but one which if nurtured by appropriate conditions can grow to enormous intensity. In most cases, it also declines, eventually to zero or to a low level. At this low level, limerence is either transformed through reciprocation or it is transferred to another person, who then becomes the object of a new limerent passion. Under the best of conditions, the waning of limerence through mutuality is accompanied by the growth of the emotional response more suitably described as love.

The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the condition is that no reciprocity of love, whatever its nature or magnitude, can slake the longing for reciprocity of limerence. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.

The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. In such relationships, both the limerent and the LO can suffer greatly in the effort to disentangle one context from the other in order to salvage and reframe in a non-limerent context what is at bottom a deep and valuable connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto — a tender French picture-book about the earliest confusions of limerence and soul-friendship.

Tennov highlights the difference between limerent and non-limerent attachment, which might share some major surface manifestations but spring from profoundly different emotional needs:

The person who is not limerent toward you may feel great affection and concern for you, even tenderness, and possibly sexual desire as well. A relationship that includes no limerence may be a far more important one in your life, when all is said and done, than any relationship in which you experienced the strivings of limerent passion. Limerence is not in any way preeminent among types of human attractions or interactions; but when limerence is in full force, it eclipses other relationships.

This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:

Knowledge of the limerent state clearly suggests that the nonlimerent LO has certain responsibilities of an ethical kind. Better understanding of what the limerent person is undergoing and how your actions as LO influence that response will help to diminish the pain that the limerent person is experiencing, as well as the suffocating attention that is unpleasant for you.

The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. Writing in the bleak pit of winter, after several months of limerence, Fred records with astonishing lucidity the respite afforded by a temporary disruption of the vital hope/uncertainty ratio that sustains limerence:

I feel a large impassable gap between us across which I must look ridiculous. Thus it is that my image of her image of me as reflected in her behavior and my own, not a change in her qualities (her attractiveness, for example), has produced this new condition of relative indifference towards Laura. I am afraid that this relief is temporary, however, and I will return to being more intensely stricken, but it shows the dampening effect that clear rejection can have. At least it is giving me an interlude in which I can get some work done.

Six tortuous limerent months later, at the peak of summer, he writes in another diary entry that captures the most terrifying aspect not only of limerence but of all love, at some fundamental level:

It seems to me that being romantically attracted to Laura means that I am bending my image of her until it is distorted. Things that might produce an unpleasant picture, I simply do not see. When she appears by relatively objective standards, beautiful and capable, I look long and hard. But when she is not at her best, when I catch her face in an unflattering angle, I turn my eyes away. If she were in love with me, she would do the same, and we might both be aware of the process in the other because we could feel it in ourselves. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the best angles are allowed to show or be seen. To do anything else is to increase the risk of the dreaded rejection. But it is a disservice to a person not to perceive them the way they really are.

Another of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Salome. (Available as a print.)

I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. Limerence, in this sense, is the resignation of understanding.

Tennov identifies only three things that can reliably end limerence:

  • consummation: the bliss of reciprocation is gradually either blended into a lasting love or replaced by less positive feelings
  • starvation: even limerent sensitivity to signs of hope is useless against the onslaught of evidence that LO does not return the limerence
  • transformation: limerence is transferred to a new LO
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov shares the case study of one woman who reflected ruefully in midlife:

Today my children are grown and gone. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. The ironic and really tragic thing is that when my children were little, I was all wrapped up in my love affairs and unable to give them the time and attention I wish I could look back on.

I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.

This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.

Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:

I do not believe that to know limerence is to destroy it any more than to understand the physics of ionization is to destroy the beauty of the Paris sky.


Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.

In an insight of tremendous foresight, presaging the scientific discoveries and still-unfolding mindset reorientation of the half-century since, she adds:

We have watched the field of psychology succumb to invisible pressures to conform to what is now beginning to be recognized as an outdated and inhibiting philosophy, an inordinate and ultimately stultifying disinclination to view ourselves as biological creatures. I believe it is time to reject that philosophy in favor of a new humility which bends to the innermost voices of our fundamental nature, and, in so doing, to shape that nature in accordance with truly human values which can only be discovered when we learn truly what it means to be human.


Seneca on Gratitude and What It Really Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.”

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Really Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful case for why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creativity.

Two millennia earlier, great Roman philosopher Seneca examined this notion and its broader implications for human life in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.


In his eighty-first letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes under the heading “On Benefits”:

You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person. If this is your first experience of that sort, you should offer thanks either to your good luck or to your caution. In this case, however, caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again; for often losses due to continued barrenness of an unproductive soil have been made good by one year’s fertility. In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

True generosity, Seneca argues, is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs. He writes:

Benefits, as well as injuries, depend on the spirit… Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it. So now let us do away with guess-work; the former deed was a benefit, and the latter, which transcended the earlier benefit, is an injury. The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a delightful reminder that even the most serious of thinkers can regard themselves with a sense of humor, Seneca adds a remark he cheekily qualifies as “one of the generally surprising statements such as we Stoics are wont to make and such as the Greeks call ‘paradoxes'”:

The wise man… enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving… None but the wise man knows how to return a favour. Even a fool can return it in proportion to his knowledge and his power; his fault would be a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of will or desire.

In a sentiment which Henry Miller would come to echo two thousand years later in his reflection on the intricate balance of giving and receiving, Seneca considers the meaning of generosity and the proper object of gratitude:

Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken. By as much as he who pays is more light-hearted than he who borrows, by so much ought he to be more joyful who unburdens himself of the greatest debt — a benefit received — than he who incurs the greatest obligations. For ungrateful men make mistakes in this respect also: they have to pay their creditors both capital and interest, but they think that benefits are currency which they can use without interest. So the debts grow through postponement, and the later the action is postponed the more remains to be paid. A man is an ingrate if he repays a favour without interest.

At the heart of his message is the insistence that true generosity is not transactional and that gratitude, in turn, ought to be calibrated to the intrinsic rewards of the generous act rather than to the veneer of a transactional favor:

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

Letters from a Stoic remains one of the most potent and enduring capsules of wisdom our species has produced. Complement it with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, Rebecca Solnit on generosity of spirit in difficult times, and Simone Weil — one of our civilization’s most underappreciated sages — on attention as the highest form of generosity, then revisit Seneca on the key to tranquility of mind and how to fill the shortness of life with wide living.


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