Okay, so there is an upside to being a person who didn’t see herself as generous while running an organization whose vision is To Nurture the Seed of Generosity in Every Human Heart. I became earnest in my wish to become a generous person.
I practiced a little every day, giving away some of my money to people on the street and to non-profits I loved. I also gave my time. Sometimes to people I didn’t know, sometimes to friends. I wrote a book called Being There for Someone in Grief, a labor of love. And since I was my own living experiment, I paid attention to how I felt when I was generous and when I wasn’t.
I was having dinner one night with Wayne Muller, founder of Bread for the Journey, and we left the restaurant and found ourselves face to face with two women on the street, one crying, and the other comforting. As it turned out, Elaine, the woman in distress, had no place to sleep that night. She left her boyfriend just a few hours earlier after a fight that got physical. She ran with only the clothes on her back. I opened my wallet and gave her what cash I had, $30, to help pay for a night of shelter. Giving her money felt like the most natural thing in the world. It was easy.
I gave my money to Elaine because she was a woman on the street who could have been me or my sister or a girlfriend. But that wasn’t the only reason. I was impressed that she was courageous enough to run for her life. With nowhere to go—no money, no home, no family—she ran anyway. I wanted to support that in whatever way I could.
Over the next few years, I gave away money many times this way and the interesting thing I learned is that my problem was not that I wasn’t generous. It was that I didn’t see myself as generous. For many reasons—some I understand, some I don’t—my weaknesses loomed larger in my mind than my strengths. My self-reflection mirror was like one of those distortion mirrors at the circus, giving me an inaccurate picture of myself. When I thought of the word generosity, the memories that came to mind were times I’d acted in my own self-interest. They loomed larger than any memories of the giving me.
That night, my actions helped me to see myself more accurately. I still struggle with a wonky self-image, but now I know myself better. During these years at Bread for the Journey, I have focused on generosity and tweaked my view-finder till the image looking back at me was clear and honest and true. Today, I know I’m a real human being with a good heart who is both flawed and flawless at the same time. Like everyone.
I wonder what stories you tell yourself that lean too heavily to one side? Stories that are not quite accurate, not quite true. And what are you doing to change it?
Write to me. I’d like to hear from you.