VIEW VIDEO I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot lately, five years past her death. After she passed, my thoughts were weighed with grief, but after five years the grief has been replaced with gratitude for the gifts she gave our family, among them a sense of humor, coupled with a spirit of optimism. She believed everyone had something to offer. There was this boy in our town named Donny. In one of my books, I described him as coming out of the womb sporting a tattoo and smoking a Marlboro. The first thing he did when he learned to ride a bicycle was to organize a bicycle gang of thugs, who spent the next ten years terrorizing the town’s children. Today, he would be arrested or maybe sent to a special school, but back then every child in town just ran from him. That was our chief form of exercise, running from Donny.
I complained about him once to my mother and in typical fashion she pointed out that even Donny served a useful purpose. “Some people teach us how to be,” she said, “and other people teach us how not to be. That’s what Donny does.” In my mother’s cosmos, even Donny had a role, just as flies and mosquitoes, while annoying, are also ironically indispensable.
When I began this series of messages on the habits of wholeness, those behaviors we must cultivate in order to be healthy and whole, I’ve largely thought of the people I admire and the traits they possess.
We began with balance, giving each aspect of life its proper weight, place and priority, lest we lose our sense of equilibrium and fall. Then we talked about patience, the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind. After that, we thought about forgiveness, which we defined as the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your pardon. And last week, you’ll recall, we discussed empathy, which we defined as our ability to be aware of the sorrows and joys of another being. You’ll remember we said that empathy enables “them” or “they” to become an “us” or a “we.”
But this past week, I remembered Donny and what my mother said about him, that some people’s role is to teach us how not to be. I thought about people who’ve taught me how not to be, whose presence and conduct I want to avoid. People whose role in life was to be a bad example. I’m sure you’ve known people like that. In fact, if you’ve had children, I bet anything that at some point you have witnessed someone’s poor behavior and said to your child, “Don’t be like that person.” Now follow my logic, if there are certain qualities and behaviors we despise, doesn’t it make sense that the opposite of those qualities and behaviors would be desirable, worthy of emulation, which made me think of this week’s quality─generosity.
I thought of this after encountering someone who was stingy and tightfisted and never-giving. I understand frugality, especially if one’s means are modest. But even if circumstances cause us to be financially limited, we can find other ways to be generous, for generosity is an indication of heart, not an indication of wealth. What I loathe is a poverty of spirit that prevents generosity and charity in any form. What I loathe is a cold greed that cares only about the self, helps only the self, regards only the self, with no thought for others. So naturally I would value its opposite, generosity, and consider it, along with the other virtues we’ve discussed, a habit of wholeness.
Nearly 20 years ago when my friend Jim and I wrote a book about grace, we began traveling and speaking about it. We were invariably asked if we had read the book, Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch. Neither of us had read it, and to the best of my knowledge, neither one of us have yet read it. But this week I saw the book quoted and the quote struck me as a fine definition of generosity. He wrote, “Be a gift to everyone who enters your life, and to everyone whose life you enter. Be careful not to enter another’s life if you cannot be a gift.” Generosity then, is our decision to enter the lives of others as a gift. When we say someone is generous, what we mean is that when our life intersects with their life, we experience liberality, bounty, kindness, and open-handedness. There is no grasping, no holding on to wealth or privilege, no zealous hoarding of time, talent, or treasure. There is only the desire and determination to enter the lives of others as a gift. That is generosity.
Let me tell you a story about generosity. I’ve never made a secret of my father’s alcoholism. My dad wasn’t the kind of alcoholic who drank and got mean. When he drank, he was relaxed and jovial, and when he didn’t drink, he was cranky. Sometimes we couldn’t decide whether to help him stop drinking or not. Late in life, he had a knee replacement and didn’t tell the surgeon he was an alcoholic. We didn’t think to tell the surgeon, and during recovery Dad went into alcohol withdrawal and became aggressive. The drugs they gave him didn’t help and when they physically restrained him he grew even more violent. They phoned my brother and I and asked us to come to the hospital, where we were finally able to settle him down by lying on his bed with him and talking to him. Somehow that broke through his mental distress and he was able to rest. For the next two days my brother and I went to the hospital to lay with Dad.
Fast forward to the third day, we’re exhausted. Dad’s no better, is still only calm when he hears familiar voices. We get a phone call from a friend of Dad’s named Joe, who asked how Dad was. I told him Dad was a mess. Joe said, “I’ll be right there.” Within the hour, he walked in the room, told us to go home to get some sleep, then laid down beside Dad and began talking to him, reminiscing about mushroom hunting and fishing and things they’d done and people they’d known. I stood out in the hallway outside Dad’s door for a while listening, then finally left, got some sleep, came back the next morning, and there was Joe, still lying beside Dad and talking to him.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is generosity—the decision to enter someone’s life as a gift. Sometimes I mention giving us homework. If I could actually do that, that would be this week’s assignment, for you to enter someone’s life and be a gift to them. Knowing you as I do, I bet you would do that without my even asking you to, wouldn’t you? You’d make your life a gift to others, wouldn’t you? Of course, you would, I’ve seen you do it. We wake up each morning never knowing to whom we might be a gift, or who might be a gift to us. We only know that when gifts are given and received, the habit of generosity leaves all of us a bit more happy, a bit more whole