When I take home doggy bags from restaurants I often search for a hungry looking homeless person to offer it to. One day my 12-year-old son, Allen, commented on how generous he thought I was for always doing this. I replied to him, not really son. If I were truly generous I would take that homeless person’s order before I went into the restaurant and give him an entire meal. Allen agreed that made more sense. To this day I have only done that a handful of times. I should do it more.
My experience of true generosity tells me it is something that comes straight from the heart. It does not negotiate karma, calculate worthiness, or estimate risk factors. I still struggle with it.
When I was a little girl of about four our family was homeless. We stayed at the Salvation Army where the five of us did our best to not make matters worse for our single mother. Don’t rock the boat, and definitely don’t ask for more than your share. We were at the mercy of others.
On one particular day as we all sat in the dining hall to eat breakfast a middle-aged man came to our table. In an attempt to liven things up he pretended we were at a restaurant and playfully took our order. Except for my younger sister, we all knew to keep our mouths shut and accept what we were given. Not realizing he was kidding around, my little sister declares, “Mr. I am so hungry I could eat a hundred pancakes.”
Quietly gasping we all look to our mother for a reaction or shift in mood. We sat in silence as we waited for whatever food we would be given for breakfast. The gentleman returns to our table – in his hands is an industrial sized cookie sheet stacked with more pancakes than any of us had ever seen. Definitely more than the five of us could eat in one sitting. I had no idea what the concept of charity or true generosity meant by definition, but in that moment I knew it in meaning.
On the spectrum of true generosity and selfishness I have been all over the place. I have selfishly behaved without considering others; and I have given generously without finding it necessary to take credit for it. I almost always offer leftovers when I eat out, and on rare occasions I have given complete meals to a hungry person. I am willing to be inconvenienced when it is convenient for me, and I am quick to judge when I witness greed while the needs of others go unmet.
I can rationalize my own inconsistency of true generosity by naming all the ways the world and its inhabitants are also inconsistent. I’ve even been known to pull the ol’ survival of the fittest card. Then I’m reminded of the hundred-pancake story. How one man saw past the circumstances of five little kids and the inevitable errors of a mother, and played right into the act of generosity. A custom ordered act of true generosity.
Over the years I have thought about this story more than I have spoken about it. About a year ago I asked my sister what she thought about the hundred-pancake story. Without hesitancy she declared, “oh that changed me forever. It made everything o.k.”
One simple act of generosity and a life is changed forever. I pray I remember the return rate of such an act and invest myself whenever possible.