Last week a very special, dear friend of mine was incredibly generous to my family and me. She did not have to do what she did, but she knew that it would be of great help to us, so she simply did something generous and thoughtful. She did it with grace, compassion, and ease.
My heart expanded with gratitude and was filled with love. What was special about this act of generosity was that my friend did it quietly without making a big deal about it. She simply told me “I’m doing this” and that was that. She did something because she could, and it was incredibly touching.
Again and again, when I do something nice or go out of my way for my students
they ask why I do it, and I respond, “Because I can.” They are always puzzled by my answer.
It is not a given that people do things because they can. Actually, in this life, people exercise “I can’t” so much more than “I can.”
Again and again, people are not generous because they can’t be, or they can’t right now. Sometimes they really can’t, which is totally understandable. But many times, “can’t” is a convenient way to say “I don’t want to.”
Generosity has always been an important value to me. It is a choice to have generosity of your soul, your time, your spirit. It is not a given that those who have, give. Sometimes, I wish it was.
I can tell you that one of the things that COVID-19 has taken from me is my abundance of generosity. I don’t feel it. For me, part of my COVID blues is shutting down and not doing as much as before. I am feeling heavy. I wish I could do more. I want to do more, but I am pulled down by things that get in my way of doing and being.
My friend’s generosity was straightforward and beautiful. People around me have been insanely generous supporting The Advot Project and donating funds, time and support.
From my Homies, I have learned the most important lessons about generosity. Their generosity comes in a completely different form and shape. I call it accelerated generosity. When someone who has little but still chooses to give, when someone doesn’t feel like doing anything or being nice but still makes an effort, when life has given you really sour lemons and you choose not only to make lemonade, but you give it away, that is accelerated generosity and my students do it on a daily basis.
“Ms.” She looked at me. This one was an angry bird, tough and a little mean. She laughed when people tried new things and she did not cooperate with me and my curriculum. I wasn’t really sure why she kept coming and she was the closest I have ever come to asking someone to leave the program.
“Your writing exercises are stupid.”
“Okay,” I tell her. “Try and do it even though it’s stupid.”
“Fine!” and she rolled her eyes at me.
“You are not funny,” she said.
“Not trying to be,” I add.
And she cursed under her breath.
I have learned since then, that it is the distant ones that need us the most. They are the ones who will challenge us the most and, in the end, teach us the most.
The writing assignment I gave was about forgiveness, who needs to forgive us and why.
One of the other participants shared a horrific story about something she did when she was under the influence. These actions got her locked up for a long time.
Looking at her I couldn’t imagine her assaulting anyone, let alone violently, but actions don’t fall from the sky. They are connected to history. They are connected to trauma. They come hand in hand with addiction. These are not excuses but rather explanations. So many people judge so incredibly quickly without looking at the bigger picture and therefore lack the understanding of the complexity of situations.
The one telling the story was sobbing, sharing more than I really wanted to hear, but I had to listen. Everyone sat quietly. While I was waiting and thinking about what to say, it was my most difficult one, the one who said this was stupid, who leaned in first.
“Okay,” she said. “You did some dumb shit.”
She got up and sat near the other girl. This got everyone’s attention.
She pulled out of her bra a candy bar. In their bras, these girls hid things they were not supposed to have, and so much more. She generously handed the candy bar over to the one who shared.
“That was dope that you shared your story. I got you.”
She put her arm around the one crying, which was the most generous act because she let her wall down and let the other girl in.
Everyone was shocked at her unexpected accelerated generosity.
To be honest, the interaction left me speechless.
I stood there quietly.
Then my tough one looked at me and added, “You know why this is a stupid exercise, Ms.? Because we all did fucked up shit. I did so many drugs. Fuck! Sometimes I didn’t even know my name. I ain’t asking no one for forgiveness but myself.”
She looked at the girl who shared. “You hear me. No sorry to no one. Just say sorry to you.”
And then it got even quieter. That’s what happens in ah-ha moments.
The girl who shared looked at me and then at the tough girl.
“I think that’s what she wanted.”
She started to cry again. “I gotta forgive me before anyone else can forgive me.”
“Actually,” I said in a whisper. “If you don’t forgive yourself first, then even if someone else forgives you, it doesn’t really help. You got the exercise right on the nose.”
That made them giggle.
Then the girl who shared wiped her tears, took the candy bar she was given, and gave it back to my tough one, who said, “The same goes for being nice, Girl!!”
“Take the candy for you. Be nice to you. You hear me? Be nice to you before you are nice to me.”
I rarely was afraid when I worked inside the walls of the detention facilities, but I took a step in because I was worried about what the reaction would be to this. And it was surprising. The tough girl who I thought was going to take a swing at the other girl, started to cry.
“That was the most nice thing anyone did for me,” she said.
The other girl started to laugh.
“Are you an asshole? You just gave me the chocolate. I am just giving it back to you.”
“You didn’t have to,” she answered, and then added,
“What you just did is generosity.”
The walls fell down, and this tough rough gang banger was softened by a small act, that, ironically, she had started.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Happiness is not made by what we own. It is what we share.”
I don’t know if my student found happiness. I do know that this interaction opened the door for her to be less tough, more present, and absolutely less angry. And, maybe, a little happy. That is what generosity can do.
You should try it.