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.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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