I haven’t written a new post in a long time – seven months, though to be honest, it seems like even longer. So long that I kind of forget how to use the interface of my host website. I’ve been busy, I suppose (haven’t we all?); I’ve been frustrated, down in the dumps, elated, exhausted, well-rested, depending on the day. Haven’t we all? I had post ideas that quickly receded as the news coverage shifted: Notre Dame as an emblem of impermanence (I may write that yet, but also, duh); on the beauty of dating yourself, even when you have a partner (not sure that one shouldn’t be consigned to the recycle bin forever).
But today, in the middle of another busy Monday, in a quiet pause between meetings, I find that I do want to say a wee something, at least as a placeholder, about generosity, the nuances of which knit communities together, and the absence of which can very easily erode them, or (if I’m to stick with the knitting metaphor)…unravel them, tear holes in them, and so on.
Before I say a bunch of things about this abstract noun, though, it seems like it might be a good idea to define it, conceptual rather than dictionary style.
Generosity. A word generally, I think, associated with material goods, and with time (also seen as goods, and in our culture, imbricated with money, as in “time is money” just for starters).
But it’s also, I hope, a word that brings empathy to mind, and a cluster of related concepts: giving the benefit of the doubt; kindness; a certain divesting of our default-mode assumptions.
All of these things require one other expansive concept: pausing. This idea itself has been coopted by the corporate world, to some extent, in the idea that it’s better to respond (which requires waiting a beat, which requires pausing) than react.
But just because the corporate world occasionally gets it right doesn’t mean they have invented (hardly ever) or trademarked a concept, or that we should cede it to them and to their twisty language (and no, I will not be generous on that front). Not when pausing is so important; not when moving through the world too quickly makes it difficult to be generous. Not given the necessity of taking time (there is that word again) to imagine the worldview of someone who is not me, to allow an idea to take shape and form, to put a pen to paper. (Which is now, mostly, a metaphor for typing on a computer.)
Because the pause is where we can admit of someone else’s humanity; where the thing that needs to be said can crystalize. The pause is everything.
The pause, whatever I use it for – to take a breath, to remember that I’m irritable today, to think, ‘I have worth, here; may I be happy; how do I want to respond?’ – gets me closer to a place of generosity, even when the person I am being generous to is myself.
The pause is the thing that can be difficult to find when my heart is racing and I feel cornered. The pause is a thing I can choose to remember at the beginning of the day, as a kind of intention: may I remember to pause.
The idea of generosity has for too long has been weaponized by those in power to retain it, as Kate Manne so artfully demonstrates; “himpathy” is, of course, real. The pause enacted for those who already have power – and judgment rendered far too quickly for those who do not. Those worthy of our generosity are often, in our patriarchal and racist culture, the Everyman whose perspective is white, the only race that is not-race, on which see Robin D’Angelo. Be generous to the perpetrator; blame the victim; if I like it so should you; if it doesn’t bother me but does you, you are deficient in some way; lighten up; get a life; and so on.
This version of empathy – commanded only by the powerful few – has held sway for so long because we imagine the white male perspective to be the universal one. What is important here, in this blog post, is that – at least I think so – we all also tend to imagine our own individual perspectives as universal, insofar as we imagine they should apply to everyone else (even when we are able, intellectually, to see that this isn’t the case).
What am I saying? That what yokes us together is, paradoxically, our insistence that we are special, and also our insistence that this specialness undergirds the world: our views are the views and express what other people should also think and know and experience. I am suggesting that recognizing this pattern might help us to be more generous. That where I sit on the hierarchy of privilege inevitably affects how I talk about experience; that the absence of generosity (and creativity, and empathy) those who sit above me frequently derives from the assumption that their perspective is the perspective. I have had very tall white men say that they have never experienced gender discrimination, let’s say; therefore, it doesn’t exist. I have no doubt made similarly unfeeling comments to people of color.
Generosity requires that, living as we do inside one skin suit until we die, we pause, occasionally anyway, to ask whether what we experience is really the same as everyone else; and if we think it must be, to ask – but how can we know?
And it means extending the same curiosity and even skepticism to our own ideas, to thinking expansively about our contributions to the world, in whatever form those take. They don’t have to be the best; they don’t have to be right. It is not a contest, whatever our metaphorical commonplaces, especially in the United States, might tell us.
Generosity means thinking beyond the bounds of self to the communities that make possible whatever the work is we do, whatever groups of people we know. And generosity is as good a place as any to start.
**The image is a picture I took in San Francisco; I’m posting it here because it’s beautiful, the street art, not my pic of it.