Elizabeth Greenwood | Longreads | January 2018 | 25 minutes (6,900 words)
Another fit of insomnia. I reach for a book I’ve read before, in times both happy and sad: Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness. I open at random to a chapter toward the end, on the subject of generosity. “When a strong urge comes up in my mind to give something — even though the next fifty thoughts may be ‘Oh, no, I can’t do that. I might need it!’— I give it,” Salzberg writes. “Even if fear or other considerations come up, my resolve is to honor that first impulse to give.” As I read these lines, my heart seizes. Something in this passage contained the remedy I’d been craving because everything in my life felt as if it was contracting.
My first book was hot off the presses. I’d heard about the cruel process from other authors: You expect your life to change dramatically. This will not happen. There will be a short-lived flurry of attention and things will go back to normal. I steeled myself, but a part of me thought maybe they are wrong. Maybe my life will change!
Dear reader, I am here to tell you there was no such reversal of fortune. I’d spent the past six years researching people who had faked their deaths and I was back to the drawing board. Typically, I would have been teaching several writing classes, but due to the vicissitudes of the adjunct professor labor market I was underemployed, anxious, and blue.
I got a prescription for Klonopin and I started getting acupuncture, which left me weeping on the table for thirty minutes while the poker and her interns assured me this outsized reaction to tiny pinpricks was totally normal. I’d have loved to have indulged in some old-fashioned talk therapy, but my disaster health insurance didn’t cover it. I even tried equine therapy, which I wrote about for a travel magazine, and spent the afternoon corralling two miniature horses in order to learn to trust myself.
I was still questioning whether the choices I’d made over the past few years were worth it if all I had to show for it felt like a big nothing. The luxury of complaining about any of this — I’m a childless, educated woman in America — made it feel all the more shameful. So the cycle compounded. Something needed to change.
Then the election happened. In a confluence of a precipitous adrenalin crash, a gaping daily schedule, limited finances, and a political climate that had everyone adjusting their meds, I was crying almost every day at the pointlessness of it all. My sleepless nights stretched into twos and threes. I wanted to figure out the way I was going to help but had no clue as to how.
That’s when insomnia propelled me to open randomly to Salzberg’s lines about generosity. Something in this challenge to give blindly, to listen to the part of oneself that blithely seeks to contribute, instead of the cacophony of voices concerned with balancing the checkbook. Expanding beyond one’s postage-stamp reality seemed like it could be the antidote to the feelings of scarcity propelling my anxiety.
We all want to give, at least in theory. But when presented the opportunity, we come up with excuses as to why the time is not ripe. We imagine we’ll donate to charities when we are more financially secure. We consider getting up from our subway seat for the weary-looking woman, then demur. As if extending beyond ourselves even slightly will make our precarious balance of time, energy, and emotional resources come crashing down.
So I made a resolution — for the first month of 2017 I would give everything. The rules were simple: If I got the urge to be generous, I’d try to honor it. I would try to do this in every category of giving I could imagine — in time, in money, in undivided attention, in suspending judgment, in forgiveness, in giving people the benefit of a doubt. I’d volunteer, drop dollars in the most dubious panhandlers’ cups, I’d pick up the tab. I’d try to take generous interpretations of others’ baffling behavior, as I take most everything personally. I’d dispense unsolicited praise. For years I’d resisted the urge to invade other New Yorkers’ privacy. No more! I would compliment freely, and they could put my name on a registry if they wished. My great hope for this experiment was to plug back into my life and to brandish a big middle finger to a regime intent on making us feel separate from one another.
Then, just before Christmas, my dog decided to treat herself to a Ziploc of trail mix from my purse. The concoction contained raisins, which are lethal to canines. One $1500 vet bill later I was feeling exceptionally broke. This was the exact moment when excuses are made, when we chicken out. But I’d already committed to my experiment. With utter terror in my heart, I stepped off the ledge. It was time to give dangerously.
I wake up in Oakland, having spent a few days with my best friend from college who is tremendously pregnant. Our daily routine consists of binge-watching shows, doing a light activity, and then returning home to rest. I’ve been giving Zoë shoulder rubs all week and paying for whatever she’ll let me — ice cream, gas, Mexican takeout.
What isn’t as easy is lunch with Krista, a longtime family friend, something of a cousin to me. We have a strained relationship and have little in common, but get together when I’m out west due to a misplaced sense of obligation. We were raised high WASP, and the conversation glides along the surface of things like a figure skater. Resentment? What resentment! Isn’t this cheese divine? We meet at a loud, overpriced restaurant in the Ferry Building. We discuss her kids, her “personal brand,” and Marin County real estate, all of which she has achieved. She takes a tone with the busboy when our food takes over half an hour to arrive. When the bill comes, I pick it up, much to her surprise and mine. The total comes to just over a hundred dollars because I tip extra.
I get back on BART in a disassociated state as I often do after spending any amount of time with Krista. Zoë picks me up, and we repair to an outdoor mall, my favorite California institution, and I spend over $200 dollars on various serums and unguents at Sephora. This doesn’t feel like self-care or generosity. This feels like mania.
Back in New York I have ten dollars out for the cabbie on the way home from JFK and put two back in my wallet. Shameful. I go to a crowded resolutions-fresh yoga class. I typically set up in the front row, not because I am good at yoga but because I want as few toned yoga bodies in my line of sight as possible. A Lululemon doyenne with the triceps to show for it takes her place to my right, and I wedge into the front corner with the wall to my left. Perfect, I think. Just one other human in my peripheral vision, the rest of the class a jam-packed sweaty moving organism of good intentions. I will really kick this year off right.
Once the sun salutations begin, my neighbor flings her arms out to the side to Namaste the morning. She makes strong contact with me and gives not a nod of apology or acknowledgment. Oh well, I think. Round two, smacks me again! Every New Yorker knows well and good that in a crowded yoga studio you throw your arms up, not out. Round three, full on bopped this time! My heart starts pounding. She’s interrupting my flow with zero regard! After exchanging sweat with this precious soul several more times, and audibly sighing with each brush of her manicured hand, I decide: Fuck it.
I will extend generosity to her by allowing her to hit me. I will offer my body to her as a battering ram for full sun salutation. This requires much deep breathing on my part in lieu of biting her, but I am shifting my mind toward expansive acceptance rather than anger at a person oblivious to my moral outrage. I still want to bite her.
I go to work on my laptop at a coffee shop near my house. I usually tip my beloved baristas $1 — and only about half the time, depending on my feelings of poverty that day. I will do this only if the coffee slinger sees me, in the sad hope that maybe she’ll give me an extra shot of espresso for free. But not today! I slip two dollars into the jar while the woman working the counter grabs my drink. She doesn’t even see me do it. I am basically Mother Teresa.
The super in my building is a lanky fellow named Junior. He runs a small racket out of the recycling in the basement, distributing cans and bottles to neighborhood vagrants who line up around 10 a.m. every other day, for which I imagine Junior is taking a cut. Since I work from home and walk the dog around this time, I have a front row seat to the cottage industry. Junior will often stop me to kvetch about the weather for a while, then ask me “to hold ten dollars” so he can buy cigarettes. I rarely carry cash as part of an ill-advised ploy to spend less. I instead offer cigarettes from my own aging stash. He refuses, preferring Kools. Today we go through the same rigmarole, and in my wallet, I have a twenty, not a ten. “Here, take this,” I say, my hand quivering in giving over an Andrew Jackson. Junior is pumped and promises to get me back in the next few days. I never see the money again.
If I claimed this was an act of selfless generosity, I’d be lying. Junior lives in the apartment above me and often cares for his toddler granddaughter, whose bedtime is around 1 am. Junior seems to be prepping for his Riverdance audition both day and night. It is not infrequent that I will stomp upstairs after midnight in my housecoat asking in my white girl voice to “Please be mindful, as I am trying to get some sleep.” I’m hoping the crisp $20 will buy me some quiet. It does not.
I’ve been meditating for a few years now, and not because I am virtuous. I have to meditate for 15 minutes each day in order to not get arrested. I bust out my meditation technique prior to nerve-wracking situations, like giving a talk. I’ll begin to summon the feeling I’d like to exude, sit on a few couch cushions, take some deep breaths and visualize myself fielding questions and criticisms with a smile and élan.
I’ve been trying the same strategy in the morning for the past week or so to psyche myself up to be generous. I close my eyes, picture an exhausted mother with bratty children entering the subway and see myself magnanimously, selflessly, standing up for her. Other passengers notice my benevolence, maybe even rousing inspiration. I see myself standing aside in line, letting some harried citizen to cut me. The bill comes after a big dinner with friends, and I quietly pick it up. The waitress even writes a small note on the receipt: If only there were more people like you.
But today it isn’t working. Seeing the slideshow of generous events only makes me feel stricken with anxiety, more aware of my limitations.
So I try something different. I instead conjure the feeling of having enough, visualizing what that would look like. I see myself engaged in each moment of my life — the tedious answering of emails, listening to my boyfriend instead of unloading on him, responding to prison letters for my new book project with the utmost care. My bank account doesn’t contain a certain target number, but I engage a feeling of peace toward it. I try to sit in the sensation of having enough, feeling generosity move through me. I am the conduit — the thing I am giving away was never mine in the first place. My chest begins to swell and my limbs experience a pleasant, groggy glow. I feel rooted to the ground in a way that doesn’t seem ponderous. I feel bolstered instead of weighed down.
Rather than picturing myself giving, I reverse engineer the feeling of abundance to make that the baseline for the day. I manage to:
- Drop off my boyfriend’s bags of detritus that had been lingering in the hallway to Goodwill
- Respond to all correspondences and queries, even ones I’ve been avoiding
- Try to be extra nice to all customer service people I speak with, even the trifling representatives of New York Sports Club
- Give a $20 tip (double the amount I normally would!) to the aesthetician who lasers my bikini line. She basically works with genitals all day and didn’t go to medical school for the privilege.
- Let my dad lament my failure to procreate without rebuff
- Drop $1 bills into four different panhandler’s cups
I felt a little surge, a little electrical current of belonging, each time. Belonging to what? I’m not quite sure, but it was something bigger than my own plight.
There’s a homeless woman who sits in front of the falafel place near my boyfriend’s apartment. I can understand the words she says individually, but collectively they make no sense. She has a kindly way about her, so I call her Eunice.
Today I pack up a sack of food to give her on my way to the gym — clementines, granola bars, bananas, trail mix — a cornucopia of organic Brooklyn fare. I hand it to her, and she is gracious. I see her carefully stuff it into the innards of several bags nestled inside one another like skins. She smiles, I smile back. She thanks me, and I say “you’re welcome.” It’s all so easy. I could do this every day. I am a motherfucking saint.
On my way back to Scott’s building, I see his neighbor. She’s wheeling a little grocery cart, closes in on Eunice, and…she’s giving it to her! Goddamn her! Here’s something Eunice can actually use! I was supposed to be the good person today, and here she goes, showing me up.
Perhaps I still have a few dark and petty corners where the light of generosity could give a good scrub.
I have volunteered to subject myself to something called MulchFest.
It’s Sunday. I’m hungover, it’s freezing, and Scott is sprawled out on the couch with coffee and The New York Times. I sit with him and debate the relative merits of submitting myself to the elements, and to the perky knowingness of the Park Slope canvas bag-toting crowd. Scott is from the Midwest and believes that life should be difficult. I put on two pairs of socks and my heaviest coat and head out.
I’m several hours late and somebody in a neon pinafore hands me a clicker counter to tick off the trees as they get mulched. I have the overwhelming urge to punch my thumb down, to feel the satisfying click click click but know this will irretrievably fuck up the count. So I stand at attention, desperately resisting the urge to pull out my phone and appear occupied. The point of MulchFest, I have decided, is to commune with my surroundings, my neighbors, to behold the circle of life as manifested by browning pine needles, the melancholy stench of decomposition signaling the promise of a new year. A fellow who looks to me like a human hacky sack sees me with my brow furrowed and waiting to count trees that never arrive. Everyone is still at lunch, he informs me. I return the clicker and he gently ushers me over to a little white tent and presents me with a new task: creating pine sachets from freshly mulched trees to distribute to park patrons.
For years I’d resisted the urge to invade other New Yorkers’ privacy. No more! I would compliment freely. They could put my name on a registry if they wished.
The rhythm of dipping a trowel into the needles and tying off the bag is lulling, relaxing. I merchandise my wares attractively on a card table. Park goers stop by and ask, “May I take one?” “Take TWO!” I implore, “and a snack!” chucking an apple and a granola bar at them. I am giving people something they want, for free, something crafted by these two hands. I’m loving this. An hour and a half passes and it feels like but a moment. I’m in love with Brooklyn, with humanity.
I once dated a journalist who never stopped giving — to strangers, to the less fortunate, to people he was writing about, mostly. Every Sunday morning, Rob would throw back the comforter and go to prepare lunch for homeless people in a church basement. He became close with one of the regulars, helping him advocate to get his VA benefits reinstated, putting his name on housing lottery lists, taking him to doctor’s appointments for his chronic pain. Rob was widely regarded as someone who would interrupt his life for the benefit of others, one of the most generous people anyone had ever known. But I could never get him to open up to me, not in any deepening intimacy. A frustrating part of our relationship was how his service made him somehow unimpeachable.
To whom are we generous, and why? For Rob, caring for strangers came second nature. For me, not so much. Looking back, I think Rob threw himself into others because he was a little scared of his own life, and of people getting close. Giving, for him, was, in part, a way to hide. This is an ungenerous interpretation, I realize — but on which side of the ledger does our giving fall? And who is keeping score?
The worst words a New Yorker can hear on the subway: What time is it? SHOWTIME! Out-of-town visitors film the acrobatics with glee while I contract further into myself. I give a dollar to Showtime, which I loathe. But giving the dollar somehow makes me loathe them less.
I am still meditating in my new style, conjuring a sense of abundance. The phrase that came to me today was “less afraid.” In that tiny moment in the morning, I certainly feel a wash of quiet confidence. Getting up off my meditation cushion, well, that’s a different story.
I understand my little experiment is made possible by the fact of my privileges: I enjoy a degree of freedom and mobility unknown any time in previous human history. I am in charge of keeping alive no one but myself and a 15-pound dog. My career choices may not pay in money, but I am wealthy in time, flexibility, and multiple breakfasts. I’m healthy and able-bodied. Perhaps my generosity experiment is a foray into a kind of first-world problem, manufacturing a false sense of adversity. What would, say, a single mom think of my enterprise? I ask the best one I know: my own.
I give her a call and explain the project. “What would you have said to somebody embarking on such a journey back when my sister and I were younger?”
“Well, I can tell you what I would’ve thought,” she says laughing with the irreverence that is my genetic inheritance. “My whole life is about being generous to my children. I use up my finite supply of generosity in keeping the household together.” It’s true. I remember her falling asleep on the couch by 9 p.m. every night of my childhood.
“But generosity can also be about receiving, allowing others to be generous to you,” I counter.
“When I was raising you guys, I had to convince myself of my own strength. I had to get into the mindset that I was capable of doing this on my own. If the spark plug went out on the lawnmower, then I needed to know how to fix it myself.”
Then she tells me something I didn’t know: “I also felt so alone, and I didn’t want to depend on anyone else. And then you start to build up walls, and even a martyr complex, like, ‘I’m the good responsible one, I have to be sensible.’”
“It does seem we expect more automatic generosity from women, and are then delightfully surprised when men go beyond themselves, huh?” I say.
“Hell, yes! Women are always putting other people first. All our energy goes into other people. Think about Grammy, her life was cut short because of it,” my mom says breathlessly. My grandmother had three kids, a paraplegic husband, a rural mail route as a postal worker, her elderly parents across the street, a dozen grandchildren, and innumerable wayward souls she cared for. She literally worked herself to death.
“If you could go back in time, what generosity would you have offered yourself?” I ask.
“I would’ve just allowed myself to take more time for me, I suppose. I could’ve hired a babysitter for the night, but that seemed unthinkable. Same too with little splurges, like a facial or a massage. Those lines just seemed so clear to me then, and I couldn’t cross them. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself.” she says.
One of the greatest generosities I’ve known is when strangers reach out to let me know they’ve enjoyed my book. This means more to me than any review or professional accolade; it buoys me during the rough times and makes my whole day. I think about how many books I’ve devoured and recommended to anyone who will listen — save the author. So today I send laudatory notes, thanking writers whose work has meant much to me.
When you truly love something, there is nothing easier or more natural in the world than to say so. I write my friend Amitava, letting him know I will teach his essay about performing Hindu burial rites for his mother, and how moving I found his recollection. I send an earnest letter of gratitude to a beloved actress thanking her for a recent personal essay she wrote about her relationship with reviews, and how it made me feel less alone. I write an Irish fellow about how much I enjoyed an excerpt of his book. Though it feels a bit awkward to telegraph admiration to total strangers, the feeling of lift far outweighs the embarrassment. It feels like an unburdening.
Generosity, thus far, has proved illuminating when giving comes easily — giving compliments, sending texts to friends trying to brighten their day, in little gestures like getting up to offer a lady in nurse’s scrubs my subway seat.
But money is where I am stuck. Scarcity is the heart of my fear. Being in deep student loan debt and in precarious employment, my inner monologue is a stream of calculations, always trying to suss out how many more months I can exist in New York. Instead of getting a real handle on my finances, like by following a budget, I adhere to Coinstar, consigning clothes, cooking big batches of chili to eat throughout the week, and prayer.
So today I decide to give away money. I send $10 to a friend of a friend’s GoFundMe to help replace clothes and furniture lost in a fire. I then notice more calls for help which I skillfully tend to ignore — $10 to a friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s sister’s fundraiser to get a seeing-eye dog, $10 to my second cousin who wants to record a demo of songs. And because we live in end times I send $10 to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Planned Parenthood. Then I give a whopping $50 to WNYC because it’s pledge drive time and every little bit helps. That’s $110 in total. Turns out that donating via the internet is pretty much like any kind of online shopping: You end up spending far more than you would if the cold currency were to physically depart from your wallet.
By evening I receive an email from a former tutoring client about starting sessions with her younger son, and another query about subletting my room. Did parting with my funds send a rupture of wealth through the universe? Did I just manifest money by giving it away? Steeped in the culture of The Secret and living in late capitalism, it’s tough to imagine giving without getting anything back in return. Does this mean my project is sullied?
I decide to take this line of inquiry to somebody who may know. I meet Richard Bascetta, a senior Buddhist teacher at the Shambhala Center of New York, for coffee. He’s a bit of a silver fox and wears cool square-framed glasses. I explain my project and my query — how can we give selflessly without expecting anything back? Since this giving thing has been feeling pretty good, is it okay to use generosity as a panacea to feeling bad?
Richard has lived in New York and practiced Buddhism here for decades, and realizes generosity’s challenges: “In this environment, we are fighting for space, for money, for status, for a fear of not having that money and status. People come here to accomplish. I’m sure you’re a good writer, but there are at least a hundred people here who are as good or better.” Damn, Richard.
To whom are we generous, and why? For Rob, caring for strangers came second nature. I think Rob threw himself into others because he was a little scared of his own life, and of people getting close.
“Our inertia typically prevents us from acting for others,” he says, his eyes never wavering from my gaze. “We buffer ourselves through our lives. Through parenting, running a business, careers, chasing one love after another, our anger — whatever buffers us from the rawness of the moment. The more layers we put on like an itchy coat, the more difficult it is to access a sense of generosity. Generosity, in its most powerful form, is breaking through the inertia.”
Richard tells me that a few years back he started carrying a stack of ones in his front pocket. Each time he’d pass a panhandler or street musician whose tunes he admired, he’d drop a dollar in their cup. But lately, he’s been pulling his hand back. And he’s not sure why. “It’s been a pinching reminder that I’m compromising my original intention—to give regardless of my inner commentary about the person,” he says. But he doesn’t see this as all bad: “It’s given me the chance to reflect and see how my judgments get in the way and clog the flow of generosity.”
Richard assures me this is okay, because the benefit of generosity — beyond how good it feels, beyond helping someone else — is that it reveals to us where we are stuck. “We are working with that resistance. Where does that mistrust and worry reside in you? That’s the investigation.”
Buddhists believe that one moment of presence is a moment of enlightenment. And when I think back over the past month, I see I’ve built a repository of these moments: connecting with Eunice before I was shown up; becoming hypnotized by the rhythm of filling a cloth bag with pine needles; hearing about a time in my mom’s life that was a struggle. Enlightenment is a distant shore for me but these moments are undeniably fractals of a larger mosaic.
On Inauguration Day I take a train to Philadelphia to rendezvous with my sister, mom, and aunt, where we will set out for the Women’s March before dawn the next day. I expect to have many opportunities to exercise generosity, what with thousands of strangers vying for catharsis and a bathroom. The last time I saw my sister was over Christmas, when she called me a sausage, referring to the growing weight differential between us. I close my eyes on the train and silently release that hardened gem of hurt. The release is more gestural than actual, a bit of fake-it-till-you-make-it.
We are on the road and our excitement swells as we pass dozens of charter buses at rest stops and see pink floppy hats all around. But when we go to drop our bags at our hotel, it hits me. The inauguration crowd is still in town. Staying at our Marriott Courtyard just outside the Pentagon are not only protesters of the new regime but supporters as well. I see whole families decked out in matching red hats and commemorative t-shirts. My body seizes up. I actually feel terrified of these people, even though I think the fear is irrational. I’d been envisioning practicing my giving toward allies, my family, people as outraged as me. Now I have to dive deep into the wells of whatever reserves of compassion I’ve been cultivating over the month toward my perceived enemies. How can I engage those from the other side? What will be my part in making things better? I decide today will be about extending generosity to these folks, to people who took off work and spent their hard-earned money to bear witness and lend their enthusiasm to the installation of our new president.
The march itself is magical, and exhausting, and inspiring. I behold so much generosity around me: There are people passing around bags of trail mix and carrot sticks; people creating a human microphone to reunite a lost child with her mother; there are cops and medics rushing to help the fallen in the crush of humans. But what impresses me most about the day is the new reality we live in. I feel safe and secure in the sea of witty signs and like-minded representatives of the popular vote. But the second we break away and walk along the Mall we pass more Trump supporters. What would my generosity even look like to them? Would it register? Right now the most generous thing I can do is to not push them into traffic on Independence Avenue. But I think about a quote, supposedly from the Dalai Lama: “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”
As we walk back across the bridge toward Arlington Cemetery, where my grandfather, a veteran of World War II and Korea is buried, I lag behind. The day is gray, thick, and unseasonably warm. We are all hungry and cranky, legs achy from standing for hours. In the distance, I see a pack of white boys in red caps walking toward us. My body responds before my brain, sensing a threat. They pass my mom and sister, who are still wearing their pink hats, ahead of me. I took mine off when we left the March because I am an actual pussy, fearful a Trump supporter would hurl an epithet or punch me in the face. When I catch up with them, my mom and sister seem shaken and tired, trying to be stoic.
“They called us ‘clits,’” my mom says, shaking her head.
Now my limbic system is just confused, outraged that these assholes would dare speak to anyone, let alone two women. But I’m doubly confused because “clit” is perhaps the most bizarre term they could have lobbed. “They wouldn’t know where to locate one on a human female!” I counter. I try to make light of it, but we are all on edge.
Back at the hotel, the air conditioning is blasting and we devour our burgers. More white people are milling around in stars-and-stripes gear. It occurs to me I have a choice. I can treat all of these people as a monolith of hatred and ignorance, or try to see them as individuals. The results are nothing stunning: I allow a Trump-supporting couple to enter the elevator ahead of me. I move my bag at breakfast the next morning so a teenage girl in a red cap can sit down. I leave a tip for the housekeeper, her political affiliations unknown. I let the same Trump-supporting couple board the airport courtesy van first. It doesn’t matter, we’re all going to the same place anyway.
The month ends. By my count I’ve given away 19 subway seats, picked up the check at dinner and drinks half a dozen times, sent 36 “I just called to say I love you” texts to friends, sent $320 dollars to different fundraisers and organizations, given $47 to the homeless, and spent 15 hours of my life volunteering. I’ve let Scott’s innocent yet potentially inflammatory comments slide more times than my ego is comfortable with. I bought coffee and a sandwich for my ex without sending a Venmo request for the privilege. I traveled to distant neighborhoods to meet friends for dinner closer to where they live. I’ve left notes in Scott’s pockets for him to discover during the day. I’ve bought bouquets of flowers to bestow upon unsuspecting pals. I’ve done nothing but listen on the phone, seated, taking it in, when usually doing household chores simultaneously. I’ve stayed past my office hours to meet a student who was freaking out about an assignment. I’ve sent e-books to a friend to use while nursing. I’ve been generous to myself by wearing the good underwear at the back of my drawer that I save for a special occasion that never comes. I’ve tried to do only one thing at a time.
We buffer ourselves through our lives. Through parenting, running a business, chasing one love after another — whatever buffers us from the rawness of the moment. The more layers we put on, the more difficult it is to access a sense of generosity.
But the experiment doesn’t feel like it’s over — I didn’t do this perfectly. There were times when I grabbed a subway seat like manifest destiny. There was a time I decided to get offended by a friend’s offhanded remark. I spent an afternoon at the Brooklyn Food Bank silently cursing the project director, who I took to be an imperious asshole. I noticed I have the hardest time letting things slide from the people closest to me. Like Richard said, examining oneself through the lens of generosity can be illuminating. At the beginning of the month I was listing all my generous acts. But by the end of the month, I was listing opportunities to be generous that I didn’t take up. Those moments taught me more about myself. Instead of feeling defeated by my imperfection, I feel curious, inspired even.
You make yourself vulnerable by making an offering the other may or may not take. You extend yourself in giving praise, attention, patience. You let the other in. You see the sky does not fall. You do it again. Giving becomes easier. Defensiveness can soften because you’re not fighting to preserve what little you feel you have to protect. From the constant gnaw of scarcity, you realize there is enough.
I’m still grouchy as hell. But I’ve found giving to be the easiest, quickest, even cheapest way to feel good, better than therapy, equine or otherwise. If I want to reset the chemistry of my brain on a particularly down day, I’ll just try to listen to what someone is telling me. I’ll text friends telling them how much I adore them. I’ll buy coffee for the person behind me in line. And a little bit of the weight lifts.
When I think back to the first day of my experiment, when I endured and paid for a frustrating lunch with Krista, I see it differently now. The truest generosity I could’ve offered wouldn’t have been in picking up the tab, but in looking directly in her eyes and meeting her where she is, where we all are: imperfect, flawed, all-too-human, locked into our own stories of what is going on, the only story we understand to be true. For all I know, she had to do deep breathing just to be around me.
I haven’t mastered generosity and the fearlessness that comes with it. But I’ve touched it in moments. I want to experience more of those moments. And because life always gives us a heaping helping of stress and awkward lunches and unexpected vet bills, I know I will have more to do. Because I didn’t die this month, nor did I go into the poorhouse, nor did I feel overextended. Instead, I felt connected. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by how much further I have to go, I feel ready. Instead of feeling stretched thin, I feel full.
Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, a nonfiction book about people who have faked their deaths.