Learning How to Be Generous Again

Whatever I had was yours, until a crook squandered my nest egg. Then I learned how to be truly giving

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Photograph: Illustrated by Aad Goudappel

You could count on me.

If you had a cause or a problem, or even if you were the cause of a problem, I would help you with a cash bailout.

At the end of 2008, just entering my fifties, I had a solid income in the six figures and substantial seven-figure savings. I had some cash to spare. Being generous was important to me.

I gave in public ways: $5,000 to an adoption agency, to endow a scholarship for young mothers trying to remake their lives after surrendering a baby. I gave in private ways: $800 to help a newly minted couple afford the engagement ring that would prove to the bride’s father it was OK to marry a boy from the projects. I gave in little ways: $60 to each of my cousin’s five sons so they could buy new Razor scooters. I gave in big ways: a three-year, $70,000 project to create a tiny writers’ residence for women whose work suffered because of day jobs, young children or aging parents.

Being the fairy godmother was fun. And people were grateful. I never cared to look at why I felt the need to help. I was helping. Over and over, research shows that charity isn’t just good for the welfare of the receiver; it’s also good for the soul of the giver.

Once I got to the stage of having some disposable income, I learned quickly how good it felt to dispose of it charitably. I was the teeniest link in a great historical chain, part of a long tradition. That place in Manhattan where everyone wants to sing would just be a big concert hall, but because it bears the name of the person whose money made it possible—Carnegie—it’s Americana.

There will never be an auditorium named for me. I was never a 1-percenter by any means, not even at my flush finest. If I had to guess, I was about a 14-percenter, someone whose hard work as an author and a journalist had paid off rather handsomely. Though my house at one point was worth $2 million, my husband had built it with his own hands. The contrast with my youth was striking. I’d grown up in an apartment where there was just enough to go around, a blue-collar kid who dreamed of another life and then, in 1993, was left a widow in her late thirties with three young boys and no life insurance. When success came, money made me feel lucky and powerful and safe.

Giving was also practical for a selfish reason: It protected my time, with which I was downright miserly. Even with my children—through birth and adoption, my second husband and I ended up with nine—I frequently folded time alone with daughters or sons into a business trip. Still, I floated on the cloud of my reputation as a generous being.

Then, in 2007, my husband invested with a Minneapolis con man no one had ever heard of. Trevor Cook knew just what to say: not that we’d quintuple our savings, only that we might keep a little less from washing away in the hard rain that was sure to fall on our economy. One afternoon in 2009, we got the phone call from my then assistant, who had opened my bank statement. We still had plenty of bank accounts, but there was nothing in any of them—no trace of the seven figures we’d worked (and scrimped) to save. We didn’t have time to apply for the college kids’ student loans and so plummeted into debt to keep them in school.

From that stone hurled at the windshield radiated big cracks in our lives, but we had to patch up somehow and stay on the road.

My husband, who had been a stay-at-home parent for several years, went to work as a carpenter, then was injured and for months couldn’t decide on a new direction to take professionally. We fell further behind. Then we lost our home. People weren’t buying books the way they had in the years before there were 700 TV channels, and so authors weren’t being paid what they once were. It was nearly a year of sheer bewilderment before I could even write anything meaningful anyway.

After the first-wave shock subsided, two things about giving became clear to me: It hurt that I couldn’t be generous anymore in a way I’d come to rely on for making myself feel good. And it hurt that the very individuals I’d helped weren’t now generous toward me.

There were several magnificent angels who, unasked, gave me gifts of $1,000 to $5,000, enough to put food on the table until I found a 9-to-5 job as a book editor.

My benefactors weren’t the people I’d helped when they were in the lurch; those people had their own problems. Their lives had slipped further downhill, or they’d married or worked their way into a higher tax bracket and didn’t want to remember the lean times. Some had never been real friends, just people passing through my life. But none of them seemed to feel the obligation I’d once felt to . . . to what?

To rescue? To share? To take out a personal goodwill policy? Was that what I’d been doing? Was my deluxe giving a way to knock on wood in case the gods who’d sprinkled blessings on me decided to recall their favors, as seemingly they had? It took me a long time to admit it, but deep down, I believed that my bailouts were an investment that would have material returns should I ever require them.

My expectations lacked common sense. While I had never been touchy about money or possessions, most people are. Once, a friend admired a velvet coat I was wearing. The next time I saw her, I gave it to her. She was delighted but also uncomfortable—as if the gesture was somehow showy. There were other times when my offhand largesse had, if not offended people, made them feel personally beholden to me. Had I wanted all along for them to like and admire me for something beyond my affection for them, beyond the good character traits that they (not I) perceived in me?  

Uneasily, I began to see that I hadn’t always given simply for the joy of it. Sometimes I had given as part of a quid pro quo.

Even as I wrote, taught and, briefly, worked in a coffee shop to meet my family’s most urgent needs, the emptiness I felt, now that I couldn’t give as I had before, refused to go away. Just as I considered my husband and myself foolish for having been scammed (no more logical than feeling guilty for having my purse snatched in a train station), I now felt my identity melt away.

I was no longer a “generous” person.

Over the ensuing months, I examined my relationship to generosity in a new way. Because I couldn’t be the big donor, and because that was at first embarrassing, I began to contribute differently. Now when I sent a donation to an organization, it was a small money order in an envelope with nothing but a return address, instead of a personal check with a letter. I no longer owned a writers’ residence, but I could help the one I frequently visited, the Ragdale Foundation, by praising it publicly.

My family dynamic changed, too. At night, as I concocted every variation on rice and pasta, my children began to help in the kitchen. We sang to the radio; I taught them to swing dance, and they taught me to do the Dougie (not that I would ever take that outside the kitchen). My kids had always been confiding, but now they sought me out. They seemed to sense that my perspective had changed and also that I wasn’t as busy as I had been. In fact, I could have been busier than ever before. Despite the urgencies of making a financial comeback, I decided to keep giving my kids a sheltered spot to park their own stresses—a gift of time that cut into my work but probably burnished my résumé as a human being.

Outside the small circle of light that comprises my family, I joined a book club and a walking group. For the first time, I was part of a community of neighbors. When my walking partner’s husband was laid off, I gave—not when the hat was passed for financial help but by doubling up on my usual veggie-loaded casseroles for two weeks and dropping the extras off to the struggling family.

At first, this new kind of generosity felt awkward. I had to supply my own applause.

Of course, some people still thanked me. When my walking partner’s husband eventually found a job out of state, she sent me a photo of the family in their new house and signed the accompanying card, “With love and broccoli.” I was thrilled in a very private way. When my kids made it a point to thank me for the pies I’d learned to bake that were at first lopsided and then display-window-worthy, I was quietly proud.

It will take years for our family’s financial ship to be entirely seaworthy, but these days I’m again able to give a little to those causes and establishments that matter, as well as to sometimes help out my three older kids, now 24, 26 and 29—even if that means just treating them to a rare dinner out or putting a full tank of gas in one of their very old cars.

I’m also more inclined to keep my support quiet, and not because I’m embarrassed. Privacy turns out to be freeing. I do only what I can, without incurring—or creating—a feeling of obligation. And since tragedy is a teacher, I’m careful to make sure our own emergency fund is fed first.

I do wish, of course, that I still were able to be one of the big donors. It made me happy to banish people’s pain and worry with a wave of my pen. From the receiving end, I know how important that is. But my relationship with giving is different now. My time and personal touch are more valuable than I ever realized. So valuable that in the long run, they may be worth even more than the fast Band-Aid cure of a fat check.

JACQUELYN MITCHARD is a New York Times best-selling author and editor-in-chief of Merit Press. Her latest novel is What We Lost in the Dark and her last story for More was "Hey Mom, I'm Home!" in the Decmeber 2013/January 2014 issue. She lives on Cape Cod with her family.

Next: 9 Beliefs About Money That Can Hold You Back

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First Published Wed, 2014-02-05 12:14

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