By Christian McEwan (Apr 25, 2014)
My friend Kathy O’Rourke says that her grandfather always advised her to be generous, especially if things were going badly. “If you’re feeling poor or miserable, give something away – time or money or material goods – and immediately you’ll feel better.”
It is easy to dismiss this as naive and unrealistic. But I will never forget a scene I witnessed on a subway train in New York City, when a young Hispanic mother and her two small children tried to give some money to a homeless man. The children were dressed in their best clothes, a stiff suit, a little dress, as if they were on their way to church or Sunday School. They approached the man shyly, each holding out a dime. At first he frowned and shook his head and refused to take the money. But their mother was urging them from behind, and the children persisted.
Finally the man allowed them to drop their coins into his cup. But then something completely unexpected happened. He put one hand on the top of the cup, shook it up and down with an elaborate flourish, and, with a smile, extracted two shining quarters, presenting one to each astonished child. They had given him 20 cents and he had multiplied it two and a half times. He was not a homeless man that day, he was a magician and a millionaire. He had all the money he could ever need.
The dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, would have loved this moment. In her book on creativity, she urges her readers to be generous. “If you are generous to someone, you are in effect making him [or her] lucky. That is important. It is like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.” In other words, generosity is generative (they come, in fact, from the same root, the Latin genere: to engender, or be born). Kindness is itself a creative act.
In his memoirs, Pablo Neruda tells a story from his very early childhood. He was outside playing, exploring the back garden, when he came upon a hole in the wooden fence. As he watched, a child’s hand appeared, and almost immediately vanished, leaving behind a magnificent toy sheep. The sheep’s wool was torn and faded, and its wheels were missing. But for Neruda, it was a miracle. He ran home and returned with one of his own treasures, a ripe pinecone, smelling deliciously of resin, and set it down in the place of the sheep. He never saw the other child again. But that small, mysterious exchange remained with him for the rest of his life, “deep and indestructible, giving [his] poetry light.”
Text by Christian McEwen in World Enough & Time, Chapter 12: ”A Day So Happy”. Illustration offered as an anonymous gift. 🙂