Seriously awkward

Year-end giving remains a big thing for many people. Walmart fights recorded for posterity on YouTube reflect how complicated the impulse to give has become. Social media posts about people foregoing holiday meals with family to battle others for bargains on toys and big screens speak to primal hunting instincts and greed more than generosity. The punching, tugging, and clawing in those retailer aisles reflects an attachment to things, even an affinity for things over people.

But giving — generosity as a virtue — is the opposite. It reflects an altered relationship to things. It cracks open new ways to interact with homeless people as friends, young people, families with children, people with physical impairments — basically creating new ways to exist with everyone.

I don’t know what generosity can or will provide for others who make decisions to practice it, but I’d really like to hear. Please comment on what you have experienced, what you are committed to.

For me, the decision to practice generosity during my lifetime (in contrast to the very worthwhile decision to give gifts upon death) has made me more informed about my priorities and fearless about causes that are important to me. It has prompted me to act at times and to defer action at others, but these decisions are increasingly based on reason, rather than impulse. Generosity has also changed my dependence on requests. I have found a greater ability to give when I believe I can make a difference and not wait to be asked. At times, I have also found that I am more knowledgeable about the stewardship of resources when they are given; at others, I have resolved to be completely detached from any interest in how my funds are utilized.

Where my interest in generosity originated is unclear to me. I know my dad would give a buck or two to a buddy in the bar where he hung out when the other guy was in a pinch. My mom would also be sure she gave to some relatives in need. When we had money, an aunt or cousin might get an envelop with a few dollars in cash; when we didn’t, my mom might clean the kitchen or watch someone’s children. Maybe my interest came from watching my mother regularly give coins to the ringers offering salvation in front of retail stores at winter holidays.

On the other hand, generosity might have been started by those who gave so freely to me: a neighbor, a classmate’s mother, my sister, a pastor, an elder, a lover. I remember specific incidents before kindergarten, in grade school, during college, and in my late 20’s.

Though the origins of my interest in generosity remain unclear, I do recall when that interest became a decision and later when it became a personal challenge.

Paul and I bought this wreath of shredded money 25 years ago. Locked in a Lucite box dripping with golden blood, it nods to greed and consumption.

I have written elsewhere about the tradition my late husband and I developed when we stopped celebrating Christmas with gift giving. My family’s conversion to Christianity long before my birth made the practices of the holiday seemed ill-suited to the realities of anti-Semitism that brought me to a baptism in the first place. Then there was my atheism and Paul’s agnosticism. Further, we both knew in reality we needed nothing. So instead, we devoted time on December 24th or 25th each year deciding how best to distribute our financial gifts. Over time, what started as a few hundred dollars became a couple thousand. Later still it became even more.

When Paul needed to stop working because of his advanced MS, we talked about giving even more. He felt at times that since I was earning the funds, he should have little to say about their distribution. We argued that point until he became his old assertive self and told me his preferences.

During these talks we expressed our interests in certain causes. For Paul, it was the arts, women’s reproductive rights, social justice, youth, and civil society. We shared those interests, and I added education, health, and homelessness. In the years before Paul died, we established a fund in the Pride Foundation. There I found the space to talk about giving and generosity that I had not known, except in those private talks between Paul and me. Their former CEO, Kris Hermanns, patiently and thoughtfully explored not only our interests in giving but also my deep sense of embarrassment and awkwardness talking about money.

Later still, I talked with a financial advisor with whom I have worked for decades. She heard and understood both my interest in giving and my embarrassment. She, too, fostered my desire to be generous while offering, simply by listening, a chance to decrease my embarrassment.

Those talks with Kris and Blanche helped me make a decision that neither of them suggested, the decision to make generosity a personal challenge. Then later, when Paul died four years ago, I no longer needed to put his health and safety into the forefront and could enact more of my plans for generosity.

Over the next few days, I plan to write about my specific interests in giving. I hope that in comments on this blog and in social media readers will add to the discussion about giving and generosity. As someone who was raised poor and, like so many of us, told that talking about giving and generosity is sinful or prideful, this discussion remains awkward for me, but I am committed to unleash more generosity — my own and others’.

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