Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about giving. Much of it is child related — trying to foster in our daughter what we call her “generous spirit” — but what we dole out as lessons often seems to float back to me on an adult level as well (the way passages in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books do, but that’s a subject for a future post).
Our daughter loves to give. She doesn’t always love to share — but full-on giving brings her enormous pleasure. And usually it’s all her idea. She might give a drawing, or a plastic drumstick, or a plate of cookies, or a stuffed animal from her vast collection. And the anticipation of handing the thing over is almost more than she can stand. She skips along ahead of me, clutching the gift and beaming.
I was telling a friend about this (a wonderful writer who will remain unnamed here, so I don’t give any secrets away), and he confessed to me that sometimes he feels compelled to give certain people something that has enormous value for him. It may have little value for the recipient — and he never tells them, “Do you know how much this means to me?” He just wants them — or maybe needs them — to have it.
This sense of spontaneity impresses me. We give, and then a rush comes from giving — which is different from giving in order to get the rush. I remember once telling my daughter that generosity would make her feel fantastic inside — and then immediately thinking that was off, somehow, and twisted, the way it seems twisted to believe in god so that you get into heaven. There are so many things in life that we measure based on what we will get out of them.
The other day I was entering the subway, and an old woman just inside the turnstile offered me a green scarf, with the hope of receiving some change in return. She had a dirty zip-lock bag in the other hand, full of perfume samples, and I noticed as I hurried by that she was wearing what looked like an old pilot’s uniform — a dark jacket with gold bits at the lapels. I mumbled my apology and went past, but when I got down to the platform I had this awful feeling. I stood there for a few minutes, and watched more people rushing down the stairs — none of them had the scarf in their hands. And though I heard the train approaching, I found myself climbing the stairs again, and digging in my purse for some change.
I had only $1.35, so I said to the woman as I handed it over, “Don’t worry, keep the scarf, I just want you to have this.” She was obviously grateful for the change, but she pushed the scarf toward me. “Hand-made, hand-made,” she kept repeating, patting it and putting it in my hands. I tried insisting, but it quickly became awkward, and I realized how important it was for her to give it to me — to have something to offer. (And the thing is, I am a scarf person, and a person who loves green.)
So off I went, on a hot, humid day, with “my” scarf. Another train came, and I got on, and instead of using the precious time alone the way I usually would (to read or make notes), I immediately started chewing over what I would do with the scarf — I could leave it on the train for someone else to find, and they might need a scarf, or maybe have a desire to sell it, and in that way the spirit of generosity would flourish. Or would it? What if the pilot lady came upon it again, lying there abandoned. Or what if someone saw me leave it there as I disembarked, and shouted after me, “Wait, you forgot your scarf!” And beyond all that — was it right to leave behind this thing that someone had so needed me to receive?
But what if she’d stolen the scarf, and the person she’d taken it from saw me with it? Where did she get her pilot’s jacket, and all those perfume samples, and so on — all of which I realized were a story-lover’s mind taking over the event, and shaping it into something bigger. I tried to stop thinking about what had really been a tiny, forgettable moment, and pulled out my notebook and started jotting things down. But the scarf was there beneath it, defining the space.
Yes, I took it home, and I suppose I will keep it. It’s green, after all.
There is so much emphasis on giving, but what about receiving? The taker, as well as the giver, has a role to play. How often do we find ourselves declining gracious gestures, simple compliments, thoughtful gifts, rides home, help when we’re struggling — why does it feel so awkward to accept and say thank you? I suppose there is generosity in receiving too — and a level of empathy in being able to do either well.