In addition to my vision of hard work for last year, I also felt much promise in the beginning of 2009. Opportunity for growth and, yes, change. Analyzing the ways in which our worlds and lives have grown and changed is always a challenge. Often transformation is accompanied by an amnesia of sorts; it is difficult to remember just what life was like before. I can barely remember what my husband was like at 23, when we met; my vague memories of my children as babies seem almost disconnected from who they are now, and it is a struggle to put myself in the place of someone who has never seen a person of color elected President of the United States.
In looking forward, and thinking of what I not only want to create this year but also what I want to wish for others, I keep coming back to the idea of generosity, and a deep conviction that it is going to be critical to our overall health and survival as communities and as a society.
With shrinking resources - financial, natural, and otherwise - often the urge and tendency is to grip tightly to that which we do have. I guard my free evenings, I panic about my credit card balance, and I want to protect that which I already own. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I think that instead of giving in to the impulse to be proprietary, now is the time to give more.
Meditating on generosity, I am reminded of a short story I read once about a woman who gets married and moves to her new husband's home in a rural, mountainous place. During the winter. She, the protagonist, is a city girl, a professional, and she is not comfortable in the solitude of the wild. She is terrified of what she cannot do or accomplish on her own out in the snowy mountains.
When the story begins there are news reports of a dangerous man on the loose. Maybe he has escaped from prison or a mental institution or something. I don't remember the specifics, but this unknown menace is woven into the storyline and psyche of the main character.
The narrative climaxes when she is home alone and looks out the window to see a man come toward her house from the woods. He is obviously in need - perhaps injured or simply dangerously cold and deliriously hungry. The main character is terrified of this stranger, and she is so consumed by her own vulnerability that she ignores his signs of distress, his knock on her door, and his calls for help.
It turns out that the man who came down from the mountains was not a threat, and our protagonist had broken one of the cardinal rules of rural living: you always help those in need. Makes sense, when you think of it - when people live so far from each other and from the conveniences and protections of civilization, some version of the golden rule must govern their interactions: give help unto others as you hope beyond hope they would help you if you needed it.
A rule like this, of living and helping generously, seems critical at this moment in history. But my vision of a generous way of living is not just about money. Obviously, the nonprofits and the needy are desperate for cold hard cash, and let us reach deep into our pockets for that kind of giving for sure. The generosity I'm thinking of, however, extends farther than gifts of money, and is a whole attitude about the resources we each possess and how they can be shared.
Like we all have different skills, we all have different resources. Some of us have experience to give, others of us have time, or compassion, or love, or power tools. Some of us have money, so let us give it or lend it. Let us also share our things. Our hearts. Our time. Our tables. Let us give what we can to those who need us. A parent, a sibling, a stranger. When others ask to use what is ours, let us all say yes.
We've all heard much recently, perhaps too much, about the psychology of economics and financial activity. The credit crunch is fundamentally the result of a deep lack of confidence and trust, not just a shortage of resources. In some oversimplified way it seems that overall economic health is akin to us all holding hands at the edge of the pool and agreeing that we'll jump in together.
So where will this giving and sharing get us? By giving money we can provide an obvious kind of assistance. But by giving and sharing other resources . . . well, we might actually be building trust and community. Imagine the power of saying yes, sure, have some, take mine. Imagine the power of hearing those things.
One thing that the last year has shown is the unpredictability of bad fortune. The neighbor who seemed to have it all? Lost her job and then her house. The friend with the ideal marriage? Maybe he's not so happy right now. With financial instability, the pressures on our relationships and friendships mount. We must stay committed to keeping each other from falling through the cracks. Not just the socio-economic cracks, but the spiritual ones as well.
Open your door and your heart and your wallet to those, known and unknown, who stumble down from the snowy mountains. The more you do, the better the chance that when you are cold and lost a door will open for you.