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

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.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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