At lunch today with Jen Gash, founder and executive director of Sweet Sleep, I heard the story of her recent trip to Uganda. It was the nonprofit's first trip to Africa, where they provided beds for hundreds of orphans.
The entire village was thankful that Jen and her team came to build beds there. As a show of their gratitude, they held a celebration once the beds were ready. Of course, Jen and her American team were very unready for what ensued: hours and hours of celebration, dance, speeches and partying.
Then, in the middle of all that celebration, the team stood amazed as the villagers began to bring gifts. Widows offered fruit by the dozen. One man gave them a 10-foot long sugar cane. This continued for some time until one widow approached Jen and placed in her hand a coin – probably the only money this woman had to her name.
Jen faced a dilemma. Here were all these people that her team came to help. There were so many people in need. Yet, they freely gave what little they had.
Jen knew better than to thwart their generosity. But 1) she couldn't logistically come back to the US with all that fruit and sugar cane, and 2) she didn't need the money the widow had given her.
In speaking with the local pastor, Jen made arrangements to have the food given to nearby children who were hungry. And she and her team gave the money they received to local orphanage personnel. They did all this without the widows and gift givers knowing about it.
Jen told me, "We couldn’t accept the gifts they were giving to us. But, we happily accepted them and then made sure we did something good with them."
Peter Gomes, preacher and writer, tells a story in his book, The Good Book. When he was a young preacher he visited a rural church and preached one Sunday morning. This poor, small-town congregation took up a special offering to pay him for his services. But, when they tried to present it to him at the end of the service, he refused to accept it.
They next day, when back on campus, the campus minister called him into his office and scolded him for not taking the gift. Gomes tried to reason with the minister that the community needed that small amount of money more than he, a young man on scholarship, did. The minister then told him that he had done more harm by not taking the money. "You have stolen from them. You took their right to be generous."
We've all been there. The awkward moment when we're trying to decide who's supposed to pay for lunch. Or when we have to split the check seven ways. Or when we're not sure if we should send the holiday card because we can't remember if we got one from them last year. Or if we should really make the trip to the wedding. Or if we need to go to the baby shower. Or if they're the kind of friend that deserves the waffle maker or hand towels as a registry gift.
Simply put, generosity is hard.
But only when we try to measure it.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator is telling his tale over dinner with an American who is visiting Pakistan. He weaves in tips about the local customs throughout his story and he also tells his companion that he will pay for dinner, along with admonishing him that in America, people keep score about who has paid for what. From his viewpoint, the narrator tells him that he believes it all balances out. By worrying less about who owes what and concentrating more on their time together, everyone can enjoy each other’s company more and have a better time – and a better life.
Bruce Northam, in Globetrotter Dogma quips, "Money is how uncreative people keep score." I like that quote, which is why I know it verbatim from memory.
But it's difficult – especially in this economy. When dollars stretch tighter than ever, we can't help but measure every penny. When we owe creditors mortgage notes and credit card interest, we are always reminded that someone, somewhere is keeping score. And that someone is rarely generous to us.
In The Alchemist, the title character offers up all of Santiago's wealth if a tribal leader will not kill the boy, but let him live at least three more days. The tribal leader grants the request, but Santiago is furious that the alchemist has lost all of his money. "He would have killed you on the spot if I hadn't offered your money," retorts the alchemist. "What good is your money if you're dead?"
I'm not saying that we need to go on a spending spree, eating, drinking and being merry since we'll die tomorrow. But I am saying that we don't need to keep score as much. Sure, saving is important, but not at the expense of being generous. By giving something away, you might finally realize how much you really do have.
And if the karma of the universe decides to even everything out, and you find yourself on the receiving end of generosity, do as Jen and her team did and promise to do something good with what has been given to you.
Photo Credit: avlxyz