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Being Generous

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The Art of Right Living

Written by Lucinda VardeyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lucinda Vardey and John Dalla CostaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Dalla Costa

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: June 12, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-37359-5
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

This extraordinary little book has the power to heal and foster relationships, console and empower individuals, create community and help save the world by providing a spiritual ecology for our daily lives.

Think that’s a bold claim? It is, but it’s also true. We can all be generous with our money when an occasion like Christmas rolls around, or when disaster strikes as it did with the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. But Lucinda Vardey and John Dalla Costa say that this kind of giving segregates generosity, and makes it a special activity only for special times. If we’re truly going to help this troubled world, as individuals we must investigate other possibilities for being generous as well, by helping those we interact with every day: our children, colleagues, parents, friends and the homeless men and women we encounter when out and about in our cities. We learn that the four most generous words in the English language are “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” We learn that if we ask, “What do you need?” we may be surprised how readily we can provide assistance, and how a single generous act may turn into something that circulates to include many.

Lucinda and John are a married couple who have committed–they say “humbly and imperfectly”–to making generosity a central practice in their daily lives. What they refer to as their art of right living, within family, work and community, is both a mode of being and a value that infiltrates all others. Generosity inspires and guides them, and continually tests and teaches them. This book is filled with true stories they’ve collected about generosity in action. Being Generous is their gift to readers, written to enable and encourage us to follow the generous way.

She was famous for her work with the poor in the streets of Calcutta. One day a beggar by the road ran up to her with a small coin–financially worthless to anyone but him. It was his day’s take on a long, hot and humid day, and he wanted to give it to her. She pondered what to do. If she took the money then he would have nothing at all, but if she rejected him, it would not only hurt him but insult his generosity. She stretched out her hand–he, who never had the chance to give, could give to Mother Teresa. The joy on his face said everything to her.

The Lesson: Saying no to another’s offer denies them the joy of giving. Accepting what they wish to give–even if you don’t need it–is what practising true generosity is about.
—from Being Generous



From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Invitation


“May I speak to you?” asked the man politely. I was the conspicuous Westerner in a ­mid-­sized city in Japan, far off the usual tourist track. He wanted to practise his English. I said yes, of course, bowing slightly to him. Without being overt about it, my middle-aged interlocutor eventually got around to wondering why I was there–in that park, in that city, on a Sunday. His English was not developed enough for me to explain that I was going through what my bemused friends called a mid-life crisis, but what I considered a journey of self-discovery. I was without work and without plans, having left my job to look for something true, or more truly me. Visiting Japan was therefore both a break and a breaking free. I did not talk to the man about my faith as a Catholic, nor did I presume to explain this trip as existential restlessness. Yet through our fairly monosyllabic exchange, he came to sense my situation. Before leaving me to allow us to continue going our separate ways, this Japanese gentleman unrolled his Buddhist prayer beads from his wrist, and offered them to me. Touched by this gesture, I knew enough about the culture, with its risks of losing face, to accept. And before I could react or figure out how to reciprocate, he had gone.

On the bus back to my hotel, I held this gift in my hand and pondered the meaning of what had happened. His was an act of gracious courtesy and hospitality, an outreach of welcome to a stranger. Such simple, unexpected kindness had bridged a huge cultural divide, connecting us, despite depths of unfamiliarity, in the sunshine on a warm summer’s day. Having grown up in a household with rosary beads, I knew that what I had received was also special on another level. Devotion beads are imbued with historical and theological symbolism, giving them a transcendent value. Yet they are also highly personal, almost intimate instruments of piety, which accrue a considerable patina of joy, sorrow and faith in repeatedly passing through one’s fingers over days, months and frequently years of prayer. I was moved because I was seen, not merely recognized. By receiving these beads I felt a bit less lost, while still being out of place. And I carried away not only a reminder of that moment, but also a part of the giver. Most Westerners call these “worry beads.” I eventually came to appreciate them as “why worry?” beads. And one year before I met my wife, and thirteen years before we began this book, I placed these beads on my prayer altar at home as a reminder of small generosities that can have unfathomable consequences.

Being generous, we have learned in our work as writers and as a married couple, is elemental to humanity. Across diverse cultures and beliefs, and despite many differences throughout history, the practice of generosity is universally revered as one of the highest qualities of the human heart. The good Samaritan is an archetypical model most people recognize, not only for going out of his way to take care of someone in need, but also for revealing, through kindness, what is familiar and deeply human about those who are otherwise regarded as strangers. As well as a mark of personal character, generosity is also an attribute of what people mean by civil society or civilization. Some of the most prestigious institutions of community–public schools, libraries, hospitals and universities–were founded and moulded in the restive generosity of committed volunteers or sponsoring philanthropists. Although generosity may well involve being charitable, not all charity qualifies as such. That is because, beyond the impulse of pity or sympathy, generous actions almost always undo disadvantage or hardship and contribute healing, thereby making possible a more humane future. An investment in positive change, the practice of generosity usually provides a spark of hope by which people themselves are transformed, enabled and revivified.

This book examines the joyful riches of generosity we, as its authors, have discovered to be personally fulfilling. Writing together (co-authoring as a married couple) has been a sort of litmus test for both the premise and the joys of what we call the art of right living, one we have embraced and held central in our lives. Each of us, in our own way, learned about being generous by osmosis. Our parents, while from quite contrasting cultures and in markedly different circumstances, exemplified daily attitudes and actions that, in hindsight, we have recognized as intrinsically generous. In southern England, one father and mother managed to balance making a living as artists while giving considerable time to the needs and creativity of their five children. No matter what the external or professional pressures, the priority at home was for expressions of kindness–inviting discussion, relishing the sharing of ideas and supporting inspiration. Small requests were accorded respectful attention: the mending of broken toys, wristwatches and torn clothes; helping with homework; and being the patient audience for endless music recitals and comedy skits. In small­town Canada, another father and mother confronted the hardships of settling in a foreign land while offering shelter, home-cooked meals and even sock darning to other new immigrants. Labouring long hours to make a living, they still made time within this exhausting cycle of work to ensure that the children would find opportunities that they, as parents, had never had. Humble luxuries, like television and telephone, were readily shared with neighbours who were without.

So we two grew up in households in which generosity was not an exceptional attribute but an ordinary, everyday constant. It was part of the equation for learning life’s lessons, for dealing with conflicts and misunderstandings, and for nurturing creative gifts in ourselves as well as others. And it overflowed as an invisible assumption, permeating the interactions between family members while also conditioning the way we reached out to the world and others in the community. This default spirit of generosity was certainly shaped by similar religious backgrounds. With Italian and Irish Catholic roots, we grew up with the stories and doctrines that affirmed self-sacrifice in the service of others, or for a good and right cause. Like almost all of the world’s major religions, Catholicism preaches charity, compassion and responsibility for community. However, being Catholic did not make us more generous. Our cultural formation in generosity was from the living examples of others. Certainly the spiritual insights and inspirations we encountered growing up as Christians provided an impetus towards generosity. However, it wasn’t doctrine or moral laws that provoked us in this direction as much as deep personal longing, from what we experienced and what we therefore knew to be possible.

With the confidence gained from the generosity of our parents, we each went our own way, aspiring to make a creative impact on the world. Since we took our sense of generosity for granted, we matured into adulthood seeking relationships and friendships of consideration, civility and gentleness. In hardscrabble careers, we each pursued success and ambition, sometimes to excess, yet never losing hope for either personal situations or social development of more fairness, understanding and opportunity. And, later, as writers, we each gravitated to optimistic projects and inclusive themes, using language to undertake that respectful, participative exchange between text and reader. We persisted alone, on our own, with day-to-day duties, while dreaming of collaborating with others in projects of shared purpose and significance. And through all the bumps and grinds of work and busyness, we ached, each in our respective way, for beauty in our human reality, and for respite and renewal in the splendour of nature.

All this circling around generosity occurred before our first date. On meeting each other we felt an immediate sense of belonging, speaking honestly and openly with an easy intimacy that we later came to realize was possible because of our shared predisposition. Generosity was something valued in our souls, and while both of us appreciated its worth and had learned its vocabulary, neither of us, sadly, had found it in past relationships. As we began to give words to our mutual attraction, and define our hopes as a couple, generosity became the prism for our relationship, and subsequently our marriage. We committed–humbly and imperfectly–to making generosity the value infiltrating all our other values, a part of our daily living with one another, family, work and community. Over the years, we have used generosity as a filter for what has happened to us, while committing to it as an everyday practice. With time, trials, tests and triumphs, we have come to formulate some basic principles and methods for what we believe is the art of right living, of doing the right thing through generosity of spirit and of self. In this book we give shape to what we have learned.

Generosity–as the word itself connotes–is about not only giving but also generating. It is a creative act rather than a handout, an attitude or ethos rather than an exchange between someone who has too much and someone who has too little. Even when pursuing other objectives, or coming from other motivations, generosity is often at the heart of what brings peace and real self­worth. Various studies among people who buy lottery tickets indicate quite clearly that the dream of winning is actually for the “double reward,” for the opportunity to share the benefits in special ways that make a difference to family or friends. Having volunteered in prisons, women’s shelters and hospitals, we found that people like us who started out wanting to do something positive came to learn that we, the supposed dispensers of generosity, were in fact the recipients of reams of joy, insight and satisfaction. These experiences are signifiers for the truth about generosity, which is that it is part of what constitutes human beings as social creatures, and part of what fulfills aspirations, possibilities and innate creativity. In virtually all relationships, but especially in friendship, partnership and marriage, generosity is the expansive quality energizing hope and happiness. As such, generosity is not really optional. Nor can it be occasional. Rather, it works its uplifting magic only when it becomes a central characteristic and ordering principle in one’s everyday life.

Generosity is not someone else’s project to piggyback upon. It is not a spectator sport to cheer on from the sidelines. It is a personal choice about what to do, yet, more importantly, also about who to be in relating to another human being or circumstance. The responsibilities and pleasures of generosity pivot on this evolution from wanting to do the generous thing to wanting to become a generous person. This is why we have called this introduction an invitation–as a request rather than recommendation, as an opening to participation rather than as a “to-do” list. When generosity is embraced as a pillar of identity and as an attribute of personal integrity, it becomes an internal truth for constructing one’s life. It is thus a source of purpose and a reservoir for meaning, which, perhaps, is the reason generosity is so common to so many religions, yet equally compelling without any religion at all. Generosity can have ramifications well beyond conventional expectations or rational beliefs. But whether its impacts are large or small, the practice of generosity reveals something inviolable about human reality. Living and acting generously certainly impacts others, but the most transformed is the practitioner of generosity, for by being generous one becomes generous. This again is the art itself, the ebb that fills and renews, and the flow that pours forth one’s gifts into the waiting, needful, ever-regenerating world.

Many of society’s magnanimous transformations have come about because of courageous acts of generosity by individuals who could not accept injustice or inhumanity. Personal choices, whether for compassion, resistance or forgiveness, became inducements for far-reaching social change. This is what happened when Nelson Mandela opted for reconciliation with his apartheid oppressors after years of inhuman imprisonment. This is what Dorothy Day exemplified when, in solidarity with displaced workers during the Depression, she opened her modest home to give rooms and emotional shelter to prostitutes working the cold, hard streets. This was the dream of equality and opportunity that Martin Luther King Jr. preached and lived despite the demeaning burdens of racial prejudice he had borne his whole life. Most people may never be heroic reformers on this scale. Yet in every life there are moments or situations in which injustice challenges the individual with many of the same sensibilities of what is human and right, with much the same potential for contributing change in the world.

Generosity is generative–generating change, generating opportunity, generating transformations. Conversely, most intractable problems to be faced today can be seen as involving the opposite, that is, degeneration–the disorder, conflict and breakdown that so often traumatize relationships, fissure communities and spark conflict. Whether it is in the clash of civilizations, or disagreements between religions, or political fighting between ideologies, constructive dialogue is impossible without some generous opening to the other who is different from one’s self.

The degeneration so painfully present in global or social realities also plays its fracturing part in our personal lives. As is often the case with family strife, differences impose divisions even with people who are loved. Fears incite isolation, especially from people who are alien or far removed, which is the reason simple antipathy or “crossfire” is preferred over conversation. Generosity, as an exercise of inclusiveness, can help bridge misunderstandings or alienation, and create connections despite disagreements. Making a common human home, personally as well as within the community, is not only a right but also a responsibility. With a generous attitude the interdependencies become more apparent and of higher priority than the disconnections. To listen to another is to be generous. To be open to others’ beliefs and aspirations is to accord them the generosity of validating their lives’ experience and desires. To stand with others in distress or suffering is to provide hope for some regeneration. Conflicts are not denied. Differences are not papered over. Anguish and anger are not trivialized. Generosity does not yield instant peace, harmony and tranquility. But it does keep problems from having the last word.


From the Hardcover edition.
Lucinda Vardey|John Dalla Costa

About Lucinda Vardey

Lucinda Vardey - Being Generous

Photo © Ellen Tofflemire

Lucinda Vardey is the author/editor of God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing; The Flowering of the Soul: A Book of Prayers by Women; Traveling with the Saints in Italy: Contemporary Pilgrimages on Ancient Paths; and the New York Times bestseller A Simple Path with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She divides her time between Toronto and Tuscany, where she runs a spiritual retreat.

About John Dalla Costa

John Dalla Costa - Being Generous

Photo © Lucinda Vardey

John Dalla Costa is an author, consultant and speaker, and the founding director of the Centre for Ethical Orientation (CEO) in Toronto. He is the author of four books, including most recently Magnificence at Work: Living Faith in Business. He is also the author of The Ethical Imperative, which was published internationally, and the bestselling Working Wisdom.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

Generosity is elemental to our humanity–across diverse cultures and beliefs and despite differences throughout history–and the practice of it is universally revered as one of the highest qualities of the human heart.

As the word connotes, generosity is not just about giving but about “generating”– creating “generative” life-giving opportunities, which may mean hope as well as dignity, a sense of animating purpose as well as opportunity.

In the absence of generosity–of generative possibilities–we are left with more and more despair and alienation. We lose civility and community connection when we cease to believe we can generate something better together.

Today, living generously, in its fullest sense and practice, seems forgotten if not rare.

•Why is generosity so rarely included in public discourse?
•Why does it feel so thin in many relationships?
•Why is it unfamiliar in many workplaces?

Many of our personal, societal, national and global problems stem from deficits in generosity. On the other hand, solutions and possibilities all depend essentially on some surfeit of generosity (in attitude or action) to end gridlocked attitudes. Addressing deeply complex environmental issues, such as those relating to global warming, especially require all of us to embrace some “generosity of change.”

2. HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM OUR USUAL UNDERSTANDING OF “CHARITY” OR “PHILANTHROPY?”

•Generosity is not about wanting to do a generous thing but about wanting to become a generous person: having a generous attitude, keeping a generous (open) mind, extending a generous (helping) hand. It is therefore not something we do for others rather it is who we ourselves become.

•Charity tends to be something that we give to someone out of what is surplus to us. Generosity is when we give what is really needed, even if there is some cost to us.

•Generosity lives in the practice of a circular model of economics made up of three parts — not only giving, but also receiving and circulating.

•We agree with Bill Clinton that it is possible to change the world through giving and many of us grew up with the adage that: “It is better to give than to receive.” This is laudable but only partially true.

•Too much giving can be as addictive and unproductive as too much receiving. The balance recognizes that generosity operates as a currency, and is mutually enriching on many levels when in circulation.

•With generosity it is as important to receive–to allow the giver joy in the giving, to be open to what we really need for ourselves, to deepen our sense of gratitude and interconnection.

3. WHAT INSIGHTS ABOUT GENEROSITY EMERGE FROM THIS APPROACH?

•Generosity, like its opposite, which is greed, is contagious. Many people are generous by nature but may be too busy or stressed to practice what would be most fulfilling to them.

•Generosity has increasingly been reduced to a form of commercial transaction. We give for a tax receipt, or to have our names put in lights on things like hospital wings or university buildings. Expecting a return on our giving tends to become a limitation on the real spirit and possibilities of generosity.

•Simple, everyday activities such as conversation or commuting are enhanced by generosity. Importantly, so are larger possibilities and responsibilities, such as creativity and community spirit.

•As helpful as it is to explore its principles and opportunities, only by practicing generosity do we get to actually experience its rewards and understand its challenges and interactions.

•Change itself is a generous act. As a conscious and welcomed aspect of our growth as human beings, change is commonly viewed in fear but it is an investment in what we hope and need to become.

•Since generosity involves circulation, it takes more than one person–usually a group, community or assembly–to fulfill its potential.

•It reminds us that generosity towards oneself is also very important. If we aren't generous to ourselves, we'll have trouble becoming generous towards and with others.

4. WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS OR OBSTACLES TO “BEING GENEROUS?”

Knowing when to say “no.”

•Practising conditional generosity.

•Giving up expectations in the sense of circulating without wanting an assurance about what the outcome will be.

•Trusting within a suspicious society.

•Not asking for what is really needed and presuming a fashionable view.

•Applying a productivity paradigm to a creative act.

•Offering things when what is needed is an investment of time, imagination and commitment from a person.

5. WHICH ARE THE ATTRIBUTES OR VIRTUES THAT NEED TO BE ENCOURAGED OR FOSTERED TO REALIZE A CHANGE IN GENEROSITY?

Language that is generative, especially the four most generous words:
THANK YOU & I’M SORRY

Appreciating key virtues, including:
•Courage–to see and act on what is really needed
•Reliability–to be constant even in small things
•Remembering–standing on the benefits of gifts and graces we have received
•Mercy– to not judge others but stand in their shoes
•Discernment–to be aware of the demands, risks and rewards of decisions
•Humility–to keep the priority on what is needed, possible or right
•Compassion–to give voice to our hearts and put love into action
•Trust–to recognize and relish our interconnectedness
•Hope–to aspire to what also serves our human need to do good
•Balance–to be an agent of generosity by receiving and circulating as well as giving

6. WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO THE INDIVIDUAL FROM STRIVING TO BE GENEROUS?

•Making change for the greater good that changes us as individuals.

•Growing beyond being a “good person” to being morally aware and responsive.

•Exercising spiritual practice to experience the insights of wisdom and consciousness.

•Adding one’s creativity to the world’s needs and possibilities, participating in the grand and ancient economy of giving, receiving and circulating.


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