Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


August 24, 1998

A gift is only a gift if given twice. Understood correctly, this is not a conundrum but a key to help us out of an inchoate guilt that afflicts us all.

Inside each of us there are guilt feelings. Some of these have a clear root within our lives and are painful reminders of things we have done or left undone.

Others, however, are more inchoate, wider, more encompassing, rooted in a rather vague sense that somehow we are not measuring up, that we owe for something, that we have not paid our dues somehow, that we are not doing things right, and that we would be doing better that we are. These feelings haunt us and, in their extreme, can lead to scruples.

Cynically stated, this is the kind of guilt that causes us to say: "Whenever I feel good, I feel so guilty about feeling good that I don't feel good anymore!"

Most often we blame these feelings on our religious and moral backgrounds: "My parents were too strict with me!" I was subject to a terrible religious training and now I feel guilty about most everything!" "The church got to me early and laid its guilt on me, especially about anything to do with sex, freedom and self-interest."

"We come out of such a Victorian background, small wonder we can't enjoy anything." "Sometimes I think that the repressions we were raised in – the result of Western Christianity – have so engrained themselves in us that our very attempt to find release from them has caused some breakdown in our biological immune system, as in AIDS."

Without denying that our religious and family backgrounds play a part in us carrying this guilt, it is however both naive and unhelpful to root this neurosis (for that is what it is) so simplistically. That is a bad diagnosis that results in the wrong prescription vis-a-vis a cure and is also the fuel for a lot of false hatred of our past.

Our own particular religious and moral training is not the real culprit here. This neurosis exists in all cultures, is understandably stronger in the more affluent ones, and in some form haunts all persons regardless of religious background. Its roots are more archetypal than religious, having more to do with our make-up than our religious background.

We feel a certain anxiety and guilt before reality because of something, something radically healthy, within our very make-up. What is part of our hard-wiring is a certain consciousness of that fact that everything comes to us as gift, that nothing is owed us, not even the air we breathe, and that we must always recognize this.

Thus, whenever we live as if things were owed to us, when we take life for granted, there is right in our very breath a certain anxiety, a certain apology, a certain feeling that we should be doing something that we are not doing. We call this guilt and for the most part this is a healthy thing. It puts our consciousness in tune with the fundamental order of things, namely, with the fact that reality is gift-contoured.

If this is true, and it is, then the way out of this guilt is not via a bitter purging of our religious past or through moral revolt. These simply compound the guilt and put further anxiety into our breath.

Guilt is overcome by sacrifice – and real sacrifice is any action that keeps us aware that all that comes to us comes to us as a gift. Only when we begin to realize that our breath itself is a gift will we begin to breathe without anxiety.

Thus, to free ourselves from guilt we must give our very breath back to God so that God can give it to us again. This is what is expressed in the axiom: A gift is only a gift if given twice. How does this work?

Imagine you have just bought a gift for someone. You gift wrap it and are just ready to present it when the person you have intended it for takes it from you and, without a word of thanks, assumes it is his. Hopefully he should feel some inchoate anxiety in now owning it.

Imagine, however, the opposite scenario: You buy a gift for someone, gift wrap it, and with considerable affection present to that person. But the person, surprised and overwhelmed by your generosity, tries to refuse the gift: "I don't deserve this! This is too much! How could you think me worthy!"

You, however, refuse the refusal and give the gift the second time: "I want you to have this! This is a gift! I know I don't have to give this, but I want to!"

When this gift is received, the second time, the person receiving it will be free to enjoy it without guilt.