Generosity has always seemed to me to be fundamental to our humanity — a way of engaging with others that creates more abundance.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
On the path to generosity
And such giving begins in radical kindness to ourselves, not as self-indulgence but because we need to feel unthreatened and acceptable if we are to have the capacity to show kindness and empathy towards others. Feeling secure is a big step towards having warmth and generosity. We don’t get to become warm and generous by engaging in a fight to the death between willpower and self-loathing.
And like most qualities of worth, generosity is a quest and a process, not a static end-point. We set out asking ‘What can I give?’ rather than ‘What can I get?’ becasue to do so opens us to enter into a mindset of abundance. Whenever we stop giving it’s because we have entered into a state of fear and small-minded living. Conversely, when we give, we make connections: with others, with the nature that we are part of. We see ourselves as part of the flow of all life, push beyond ego and our creativity soars.
Generosity and boundaries
Yet generosity doesn’t always feel so wonderful and it isn’t always perceived as welcome. There are ways of being generous that involve being so much the ‘giver’ that we exhaust ourselves, emotionally, physically, in every way possible. And, as Anne Truitt points out in Daybook, there can also be a less than generous intention to some forms of generosity: those that she describes as ‘the stalking horse of control’. We all recognise those ‘gifts’ that come with the implied or even overt menace of being in debt or gifts that somehow stake their claim on us.
The pursuit of compassion and generosity isn’t a platform for either exerting control. Truitt goes on to discuss the need to withdraw our territory as parents, but it can be true of other relationships too. Generosity is not an excuse to take over but to collaborate.
People who always depend on others and give little or nothing are draining. But people who appear to need nothing, who will give but not take or who go it alone, face a different sort of challenge. Sooner or later life throws all of us some problem that demands we ask for help. Being independent or all-giving will seem less attractive at this point. Sometimes the generous thing to do is to receive the generosity of others.
In the same way that the collision of disparate ideas can result in innovation, when people connect and collaborate they are more than the sum of the parts. Collaboration and interdependence enables us to be generous and outward-looking. It also builds a network of people who will help when needed and helps us to be people who are as generous in our ability to receive as to give.
Interdependence also asks those of us tempted to pour ourselves out endlessly to pause and assert some healthy boundaries. Giving as a reflex or inability to say ‘no’ only dilutes the giving, making it meaningless; merely a reaction to every demand rather than a deep human engagement.
Giving isn’t about negating ourselves out of fear of conflict or because we’re too lazy to spend the time finding a solution. Generosity, unlike self-sacrifice, is a shared bond that we delight in. None of us can do everything so we need say yes only when we mean it. to honour. It might be a remote bond, as when we give to a cause that is far away from our own lives, but always one that resonates with our common humanity. Or it might be a direct bond with someone important to us. At its best generosity is about empathy, compassion and a delight in the value of others.
Generosity as a tool of writing
And those of us who are creators and writers need this generous heart because we are the ones telling the stories. Whether it’s the story of how the universe or technology works; a life that illuminates humanity; a science fiction or crime thriller that gives us insight into the human condition and our connectedness; or a poem that reflects on an overwhelming emotion at the heart of everyone, we are the ones shaping the perceptions of reality.
This is not to say that our stories should all be La-la Land illusions of a world that is sugar and spice and all things nice. Our stories might be of incredible deprivation and cruelty, or tell of tremendous struggles that end in ambiguity. But our stories should come from a heart that cares, that has empathy for even the most flawed characters in our novels, that resonates with even the most difficult emotions in our poetry.
Without a spirit of generosity we all too easily become judges instead of compassionate observers and witnesses. But with generosity, we write flawed characters, not only because perfect ones are boring but because, by writing of flaws with empathy and kindness, we change human relations.
When the philosopher, Simone Weil, was dying from tuberculosis she refused to eat more each day than the rations given to her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France. Albert Camus described this as a kind of generosity that is about refusal and resistance; that is radical and future-oriented. It’s a generosity that not is not only overflowing with compassion, but also reminds us to live by more humane rhythms.
And it is generosity that can animate our writing as we share what we have within on the page. This is how Annie Dillard puts it in Abundance:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
Generosity is crucial to a culture of creativity. We need it for all that is life-giving’s sake and, as writers, for the sake of the story that transforms.
Generosity as attention
Simone Weil wrote in First and Last Notebooks:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
I want that engraved on my soul. This is not an article of creed but the most humane way in which we connect—to the cosmos, to others, to ourselves—by paying attention; by being generous.
- You cannot lack compassion if you live from a wellspring of generosity.
- You cannot be full of pride and hubris if you relax into the grace of generosity. It is a letting go that is filled with humility.
- You cannot be full of fear when you are generous: it is the courage to give no matter what the world says.
- You cannot be hard and impervious when you are generous; giving renders you vulnerable.
At its best, generosity is for the sheer wild joy of making ourselves vulnerable in an act of reaching out with no thought of control, debt or self-aggrandisement. It is the impulse of abundance with another person or life in that moment.
To achieve this holy grail of generosity might be a life’s work — part of the quest of integrating our embodiment, of accepting the darknesses we harbour and our willingnes to forgive it in ourselves and others, yet sometimes — just sometimes, slowing down and paying enough attention to the ordinary miracles of life that we can revel in thier abundance. Such generosity is the willingness to live along the nerve of our connectedness, which calls us beyond self to the deeper joy of losing ego and feeling ourselves in deeper flow.
We come close to such generosity only occasionally, but it is worth the quest — for those we love, for the earth we inhabit, for our souls. It expands whatever it touches. It is a compassionate refusal to live only in the narrow confines of ‘me’, a refusal to define anything outside the leaky and dubious boundary of self as ‘other’.
As writers, let’s choose to be on the path of generosity. For all that is life-giving’s sake: let’s be generous.
Becoming a different story
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