I was speaking with a fellow-writer friend yesterday about motherhood, coming to an acceptance of our non-perfection, and reflecting on what we good we had done, which—if we were honest with ourselves—had little to do with material success and had mostly to do with the quality of their relationships. And how did we assess the quality of these relationships? That they were generous.
And I’ve been sitting with that word—generous.
In a recent interview, writer George Saunders reflects on what he learned most from his writing teachers Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger; The main thing those two teacher were, was generous. Similarly, in an effort to encourage more generosity and combat the self-obsession of social media, writer Maria Popova encouraged her fellow-writers to promote the work of other writers, rather than their own.
Generosity requires a baseline of security in oneself, a belief in a bigger picture or faith that it will all be ok somehow. And humility. Generosity recognizes that you and I can both flourish at the same time. I am not diminishing my chances at a fulfilling life by congratulating you on the joys and successes of yours.
Let’s be honest for a second…we can all smell lack of generosity from a mile away. And usually—it’s funny how it works this way—the least generous (meaning most insecure) often appear the most secure. The most confident. The most on their game. They just want to drop into the conversation all these amazing things about themselves, and when you have something to share, they somehow diminish it…
Why???? Not why are they the way they are, because that’s not our job to fix other people, but why do we hang out with people like this?
Sometimes—it’s not our choice; we share DNA, we share a workplace, or they are the nasty spouse of a colleague. But, whether it is or isn’t our choice, we can choose how and how often we interact with these people.
Goethe is known to have said, Tell me with whom you associate and I will tell you who you are.
I’m going to push back a little Goethe, because I think inviting un-generous people into one’s life is not a reflection of who you are, but who you think you are.
Either you think you are that diminished self OR maybe…ok follow me here, going down a Jungian rabbit hole…maybe these meannies are a kind of shadow -self. Maybe they represent who you think you are, or who you think you should be.
Just an idea…
But either way—not good. Ask yourself—does it feel good to be around someone who doesn’t wish you well? We need to surround ourselves not with sycophants, but with people who will be honest and kind, who will rejoice in our joy and build us up. And…important to be that way with ourselves (no martyrs here!) and also with our friends and children and parents and partners.
Which reminds me of the beautiful lines from Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights”, Our life on this planet is about getting to pure love.
And I think pure love is pretty damn generous.