Reciprocity – or – Who hid the tally sheet?

When I am prepared to accept my lack of control, I am more apt to tap into a power, into some measure of freedom from fear…Willy Loman sets his faith in a reward most surely awaiting him for having worked so long and so hard in order to be well-liked. 

~~ Craig Lucas, playwright

My mother believed in reciprocity.  She taught me that if you are good enough, generous enough, or helpful enough, the world will reward you.  Her guiding principle was this: don’t just do unto others as you would have them do unto you; go above and beyond.  The expectation was clear: be extra nice, and people will be extra nice right back.  Be extra generous, and people will stake you generously when you need a loan.  Give people extra help when they’re in trouble, and they’ll come running when you need a helping hand.

In other words, my mother believed that the world is fair.

I think we all agree that it’s important to be kind and helpful.  It’s one of the many things we can do to make the world a better place.  But as my mother interpreted it, it’s a terrible lesson to teach your children.  In the first place, you may have noticed that the world isn’t fair.  Sometimes niceness is greeted with a sneer.  Loans are never paid back.  When you need help, your friend is nowhere to be found.  These things happen; it’s part of life.  There could be any number of reasons for someone’s failure to reciprocate, including personal or financial difficulties.  But if you’ve been taught that your behavior can control the actions of others, and they fail to respond in kind, you can begin to believe that what you gave them wasn’t enough.  So you try harder, give more time, more money, more kindness – and end up tapping yourself out in the process.  But the alternative, you’ve been led to believe, is to fail at life.

Now, my mother really was a very kind and generous person.  She could at times be ferocious in her caring.  But she also believed in a universal tally sheet where her generosity was recorded, and that her actions constituted a quid pro quo with the people she was helping.  None of this was ever expressed.  It was up to the person she was helping to understand her expectation of reciprocity.

As an over-achiever by nature, I took up her standard and marched forth into my creative life, flag flying high.  Since I’m also ambitious and a fiend for learning, I was a perfect candidate for burn-out.  And indeed, I’ve experienced it many times.

But during one of my burn-out phases, when I was trying to figure out what went wrong, it dawned on me that the world didn’t care how much extra-credit work I did.  If I felt driven to do extra preparation for a performance, that was fine, as long as I didn’t expect anyone to pat me on the head for it, or even remember me at the next audition.  Coming early to the theatre to help set up for rehearsal or memorizing my lines before the deadline rarely landed me better parts. What got me the part was being right for the role.  No one said to themselves, “Gee, Vicki is working really hard. Let’s reward her.”  Because no one was keeping score.  The work was expected; the reward was the job I was doing right then.  Besides, everyone was working just as hard, and also not being noticed.

This is where freedom comes in.  When I learned to detach the strings from my actions, to stop trying to impress, I freed myself to act in the interest of whatever is meaningful to me, without worrying about payback.  If I decide something is worth my time, I can either accept the terms implicit in the work, or I can negotiate different terms.

Ultimately, I’m only required to work on the things I can do something about, and the last time I looked other people’s actions don’t fall into that category.  People will respond in kind or they won’t, but it’s not under my control.  Once I realized that, I was able to lavish my time and energy on the things that feed me as an artist, in an environment free of score-keeping, and ultimately free of disappointment and burn-out.

It’s something of a Zen problem: in order to get what we want, we have to stop trying so hard to get it.  It means we have to focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves.  If my mother had thrown away the tally sheet, the reciprocity she sought would probably have come to her many times over.  I see now that — like Willy Loman, the central character in Death of a Salesman — she failed to understand one of the basic rules of life: that rewards are more likely to come to us when we let go of the need to control how they find us.

If you insist on wanting to know that everything will come out all right…you give up the freedom to affect the outcome.

~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary