When my boyfriend quite candidly told me last September that he thought I wasn’t a generous person I was affronted. I teach! I fought back. What can be more generous than that? He shrugged and we spoke no more of it but his words started a process of internal chat and self-analysis (more so than usual)(if possible 😉 )
Over time I’ve come to realise that not every assessment made about your character is a valid one. I think when we hear ourselves mentioned by someone else – have one of our traits or characteristics examined – we tend to take it often as an undisputed truth. Even if it comes from someone uniquely unqualified to do so, remarks sit around in our heads and our hearts.
So it was with interest that I listened to my boyfriend’s remark although my initial rebuttal was to refute his comment entirely. In the days and weeks following some quiet introspection took place and, without dismissing or accepting what he’d said either way, I turned instead to self-reflection, to see what evidence there might be for and against his claim.
Turns out, there was a lot.
It speaks volumes that my retort was to point to my job, as if merely holding the position of an educator made me a generous person and absolved me from ever having to go above and beyond that which my job allowed for in the arena of generosity.
It is true that as a teacher I have been generous. With the hours and patience and workload involved – at first glance I was right in what I told my boyfriend: that job does require a generosity of spirit.
But then I started thinking about generosity and sacrifice. And here’s the rub.
There is a line where generosity crosses into sacrifice and the line is defined by how the actions in question make you feel. After a certain point my teaching life was not the epitome of generosity but of self-sacrifice.
Generosity – at least from my point of view – is when you share that which you have with others. It speaks of a kindness of heart and of a desire, frequently, to assist or elevate people with your actions. You give what you have to give – be it physically, emotionally or spiritually.
In giving away so much of myself in the past I ironically wore away my ability to be generous. Instead I entered the waters of sacrifice: giving away time, energy and resources that I actually possessed not. There is nothing heroic in that.
Generosity requires not even a thank you; the act of being generous in itself is what is fulfilling; you already feel thankful. Think of a time you were generous. Were you thanked? Did it even feel necessary to have that person say so?
Sacrifice, on the other hand, demands to be noticed. Look at what I am giving up for this!
So with this in mind, I decided that from November onwards I was going to be more generous without wearing myself down. Instead of volunteering for five days straight, I’d do what I could and not beat myself up when I couldn’t commit to more. I’d have a coffee with a friend who sought advice but I’d limit it – in a kind way – so that I didn’t come away resentful that the things I needed to do had gone unfinished at the expense of that same friend.
My mindset began to change sure, but what changed at a much faster right was how good my outlook began to be. I saw more opportunities to help others and, freed from the thought that more time = more generosity, the more productive I was able to be in seeing through the assistance I had offered.
I’ll help you to apply for that job tonight became I have an hour free every evening this week to help you with that application and, unsaid, this is because I have a life worth living too and I deserve to spend some time on it.
With this change I found myself in the midst of planning something I had never done before.
Back in November I caught my dad looking out blankly at the garden. The sun had set hours before and it seemed like it had never risen such is the bleakness of an Irish winter. Several days later I found myself in conversation with my mum about Anne Frank. I was telling her about my visit to the museum in Amsterdam when the idea that I could send them to Amsterdam to see it for themselves fell into my head.
At 1am that morning I had sourced flights and a hotel, both of which were either discounted or on sale. My younger brothers, whom I spoke to the next day, were on board and so we booked everything and waited four weeks, contacting friends of our parents to ensure nothing was planned for that week and telling dad a white lie to get him to book some days away from the office.
When we gave them the news (two days before they were due to leave) it wasn’t my parents who were upset, it was me. The joy – that is the correct word – that I felt was less to do with being able to share my money but due to the fact that my experience in the city had equipped with the knowledge to gift my parents a mini-break that would bring them their own version of happiness.
I had been planning back then to take that money and send myself to the sun for a week or two but I learned a second thing from the whole experience: the light that comes from giving burns a whole lot brighter and, there’s little risk of over exposure.