Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On Generosity

Dear Nobody in Particular,

            Happy New Year! I hope that your 2013 is off to a great start and that you enjoyed the holiday season with your family and friends. I’m sorry for the long hiatus in writing any letters to you; the holidays were busy and then getting back to school / preparing my students for their exams ate up what little free time that I had. Time, though, is what I’d like to address in this letter. As mentioned in previous letters, time is the most precious resource we have; we must use it mindfully in order not to squander it, especially in light of the fact that we have no idea how much we have exactly. Some people might not see the direct connection between time and generosity, but it’s there and the more cognizant we are of this relation the more wisely we use our time and the more generous we become.

            Many people might hear the words generous or generosity and automatically correlate these concepts to finance. When we think of helping others, for instance, many may think of donating money to a cause, a person, or the like. And while this is one way that we can be generous with others, financial generosity in some sense requires the least of us. True, we may have to work long hours to have earned that money, but those contributions are quickly forgotten once they’ve been made. I’m not trying to dissuade you from being generous with your money if you can afford to help others, NIP, just that the generosity stemming from money is ephemeral at best. I would argue that how we are generous with our time can be much more meaningful and lasting, but many are not willing to part with their time and offer money instead, hoping to make some beneficial impact on another’s life.

            I honestly believe time is more important precisely because it requires effort for us to be generous with it. The effort is not so much in the time spent as it is in the way we spend it. Far too often people say they want to be generous with their time with others but never really show up. True, they may be there bodily, but they’re not present. Has this ever happened to you? A friend perhaps asks to spend time with you, but instead spends most of his/her (and your) time checking the phone. I know it’s happened to me, which is precisely why I think how we are truly generous with our time is when we are fully present for that other person. Sometimes all a person needs is another attentive human being with a listening ear. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received from students is that when I listen to them speak, I listen. Recently one of my philosophy students told me that I am like no other teacher in that whatever another student wants to share with me I am genuinely interested in, whether it is about the student’s troubles in another course, how s/he passed a particular test, or the new family puppy. Regardless of what is being shared, I feel the best way any of us can be generous with our time is by purely being fully present with that person, thereby donating our time in a meaningful yet simple way.

            If I have models for generosity that I try my best to live up to in this regard, it would be my Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Nancy. In fact, they may be the ultimate example for all of the five qualities of love, compassion, gratitude, generosity and patience. Whether they realize it or not, I would be willing to wager that they have inspired all of the members of my family on my mother’s side. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of them, often reminding myself that I have so much work to do to become a better person. What they have done over the last dozen years is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to the five central qualities that I have been actively trying to cultivate myself over the last four years. What they did is adopt a baby. Abby was about 2 years old at the time they took over her foster care, and she had many, many health challenges due to her being born prematurely to a mother who was a drug addict. Her health challenges were so severe that several doctors’ prognosis concurred on one central point—Abby would live until about 5 years old at best. Through the years, Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Nancy showered this special little girl with their generosity in terms of getting her the best health care possible; perhaps more importantly, though, is how they are a constant presence in her life. Abby is now 14, a miracle by anyone’s standards. This is not to say the journey through the years has not been without challenges, but I sincerely believe that the constant source of love being given to her from the both of them has sustained and nurtured Abby.

            Regardless of which of the five qualities you choose, they are all various manifestations of love. Generosity is no different. When we choose to give/share what we have with others, the motivation is love. And while money can help those in need from time to time, what most people sorely need is not something that can be bought—it’s time. The time we take out of our busy, hectic lives to sit and share our lives with another person who is in need of a listening ear, a few words of encouragement, or solidarity shared in silence can make all the difference to that individual. If I have any words of closing for you, NIP, they would be to be generous with your time; perhaps more importantly, when you’re being generous with your time, really bring your whole being to that moment. Don’t worry about your phone, the television, or any of the myriad distractions the world is constantly laying at your feet. Just simply give someone your undivided attention for however long he/she needs it. Though it may be cliché, the best present we can give to others is our presence itself.

Who needs your generosity, NIP? Give it freely and often.

- Ryan

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